FROM THE ARCHIVE

Contempt trial recommended for Interior

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FEBRUARY 22, 2001

The court-appointed investigator assigned to the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit on Wednesday recommended a federal judge hold a contempt trial to address alleged incidents of retaliation against a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee.

The employee, Mona Infield, was a BIA computer specialist who worked at a regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After criticizing the government for its progress on reforming the mismanaged trust system, Infield last year was stripped of her duties, barred from her office, and assigned to home duty.

At the urging of the plaintiffs in the case, special master Alan Balaran investigated these and related events. Balaran said he has found "sufficient evidence" to establish that Infield was targeted by senior BIA management for her criticism despite a court order against retaliatory of employees who participate in the case.

Having succeeded at slapping former Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, with contempt-of-court charges and fines in 1999, Balaran's recommendations bolster the claims of the plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet Nation banker Elouise Cobell. But they come at a particularly critical time in the case.

Some of the players Balaran names in his report -- like Gover, former BIA Deputy Commissioner Hilda Manuel, and former Interior Solicitor John Leshy -- are no longer employed at the Interior. While it would not be impossible to force them to return to court to face Judge Royce Lamberth, the plaintiffs suggestion that personal fines and jail time for them might be difficult to realize.

And depending on how newly confirmed Secretary Gale Norton reacts to the charges, it may be hard to hold her in contempt for actions which occurred under the watch of her predecessor. Since Babbitt's departure, Norton has taken the somewhat conspicuous position as the defendant for a case in which she hasn't yet had any significant input.

During her Senate testimony last month, Norton promised to do what she can to sort out the mess. A contempt hearing could quickly prove her vow harder to fulfill than she anticipated, however.

Gover and Manuel now work together at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington, DC, law firm. Both represent tribes in the firm's Indian law practice.

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA - www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - www.indiantrust.org

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