FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush facing heightened contempt probes

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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2002

The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust debacle has expanded probes into the contemptuous conduct of nearly 50 federal officials and government attorneys.

In response to repeated requests by the Cobell plaintiffs and recommendations by a court investigator, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth moved forward with a new set of proceedings. Court orders issued on Tuesday set a third contempt trial and authorized inquiries into the actions of Department of Interior and Department of Justice officials.

The move comes on the heels of Lamberth's rebuke of Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. A 267-page opinion lambasted the Bush officials as "unfit" trustees who are "unable" or "unwilling" to manage billions of dollars in Indian funds.

"The defendants have amply demonstrated during . . . that they cannot be trusted to report in a timely manner complete and accurate information regarding the status of trust reform and their efforts to discharge their fiduciary responsibilities properly," the contempt ruling stated.

Norton and Interior subordinates face similar reprimands should they be held in contempt for retaliating, in violation of a court order, against a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee. Mona Infield, a computer specialist in New Mexico, was sent home by Washington, D.C, bureaucrats more than two years ago for blowing the whistle on a $40 million trust accounting system.

Known as the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), the package has failed to live up to its promise of bringing Indian trust into the 21st century. Former BIA chief information officer Dom Nessi, whose testimony Lamberth relied upon when declining to appoint a receiver in the case, pushed an aggressive development schedule.

Because Infield questioned these and other plans, she was ordered by Nessi and Hilda Manuel, former BIA deputy commissioner, to work at home, according to court documents. She has been there since spring of 2000, still drawing an $80,000 annual salary.

But her complaints ultimately proved true. Last fall, a consultant Norton hired proclaimed TAAMS a disaster and she halted development earlier this year.

Lamberth's ruling -- which centered on Norton's failure to accurately report on the system -- also affirmed the challenge. "The second report filed during Secretary Norton’s tenure with the department contained just as much misleading (if not outright false) information as the previous quarterly status reports filed with this court," he wrote in reference to TAAMS.

With regard to the dozens of other government representatives, Lamberth referred the evidence to special master Alan Balaran. He has already recommended contempt trials for destruction of e-mails against court orders.

Balaran will now move on specific findings for the contemnors, some of whom have been excused from the case and, in at least one instance, Indian trust matters. Timothy S. Eliot and Edith R. Blackwell of the Interior's Office of the Solicitor are among the group wanted in contempt for the fiasco.

Others involved are Department of Justice attorneys, some of whom have left federal service. Former Clinton administration appointees, including Bruce Babbitt, Kevin Gover and John Berry, John D. Leshy of the Interior; and Lois J. Schiffer of Justice have been cited by the plaintiffs.

Infield's contempt trial is set to begin December 18, 2002. The government is expected to mount a challenge or delay proceedings, in addition to the appeal Norton said the Bush administration will pursue.

Relevant Court Rulings:
Third Contempt Trial | Contempt Order and Referral to Special Master

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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