FROM THE ARCHIVE

Norton targeted for contempt in retaliation incident

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MARCH 15, 2001

Making good on earlier threats, the plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit against the federal government on Wednesday asked a federal judge to add Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to a long list of officials alleged to have retaliated against a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee who could be fired this week.

The move marks the first time Norton has been specifically cited for contempt by the plaintiffs in the five-year-old dispute Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo) has called a "national disgrace." Although recent contempt of court motions have identified top Department Interior officials and management, Norton's name had been left out.

Now in her second month of duty, Norton can safely say the honeymoon is over. Amidst pressure from Congress and the courts, Norton faces another crisis over the impending fate of Mona Infield, the employee against whom Norton is alleged to have retaliated.

One year ago this month, Infield, a senior computer analyst at a BIA office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, criticized her employer's attempts to fix the historically mismanaged trust fund system. Soon after, senior BIA management stripped her of her duties and assigned her to home duty, where she has continued to draw an $80,000 yearly salary.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, Norton earlier this month offered Infield up to $100,000 to pay legal expenses. But in a letter to a Department of Justice official, Infield's lawyers rejected the settlement with a warning: "We will not permit you or Secretary Norton to threaten or otherwise abuse the Cobell plaintiffs or witnesses . . . The culture of fear and intimidation fostered by Interior and Justice . . . is now over."

Although the special master assigned to the case has recommended Judge Royce Lamberth hold a contempt of court trial, Lamberth has yet to decide on the issue. Such a trial wouldn't be the first in the history of the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit: in 1999, Lamberth slapped former Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- all Clinton appointees -- with contempt of court charges and fines.

Even though Babbitt and Gover have since left the Interior, the plaintiffs aren't letting them off easy. Both are still being cited for contempt regarding the treatment of Infield.

Additional Interior officials and management identified in yesterday's motion include:
  • Sharon Blackwell, BIA Deputy Commissioner. Appointed June 2000 and like Norton, had been left off contempt of court motions until yesterday.
  • Hilda Manuel, former BIA Deputy Commissioner whom Blackwell replaced. Said to have ruled the BIA with an "iron fist" and now works with Gover at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington, DC, law firm.
  • Deborah Maddox, BIA Director of Management and Administration. Overseeing the BIA's new trust records office in Virginia which Special Master Alan Balaran last month reported was riddled with security problems. Infield had been ordered to report to this facility but declined.
  • Dominic Nessi, BIA Chief of Information Officer. He personally called Infield and assigned her to home duty last year.
According to Norton's March 2 settlement offer, Infield could face potential dismissal as early as tomorrow. Interior spokesperson Stephanie Hanna said Infield has been offered a variety of positions within the Department but rejected them all.

Norton was unavailable for comment yesterday.

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

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