FROM THE ARCHIVE
Attempt to limit trust fund probe rejected
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TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2001

In an action highlighting the tension between the government and a court-appointed investigator assigned to sort out the trust fund mess, the special master in the Cobell v. Norton class action lawsuit on Monday rejected an attempt to limit his probe of a top-level Department of Interior office.

Charging that Alan Balaran is biased against the government, the Interior and the Department of Justice have been seeking to change the way he investigates the Office of Trust Records. Overseen by Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, a Clinton appointee who reports directly to Secretary Gale Norton, the office is charged with protecting the records of an estimated 300,000 American Indians whose financial assets are held in trust by the government.

In response to concerns about the education and management backgrounds of OTR employees as well as their ability to carry out their duties, Balaran launched an investigation into the office in March. At the time, he said he intended to interview three top managers under oath about their work at OTR.

But Balaran held off in order to let OTR Director Kenneth Rossman, Deborah Meisner and Kaye Hayes hire their own private lawyers. Meanwhile, the government tried to prevent the interviews altogether and replace them with written statements.

Balaran, however, rejected the request, noting that confidential communications are necessary to make sure the government is living up to court orders to preserve trust fund records. He said getting rid of the interviews would not help him determine if the government is fulfilling its obligations to account holders.

"Either OTR employees are capable of faithfully executing their trust responsibilities or they are not," wrote Balaran. "This investigation will find out."

Balaran also refused to let the government approve any reports he authors regarding his investigation. The Interior wanted advance review because Joe Christie, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, is working with Balaran.

Christie, a veteran of several BIA offices, says he was forced into early retirement for providing court testimony which supported the claims of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Balaran has refused to take Christie off the case.

In a related move, Balaran yesterday rejected the Interior's attempt to limit his confidential communications with employees who fear they may be retaliated for providing information about the trust fund. The government wanted their own lawyers in place during any conversations, but Balaran said the request was a "hollow demand."

In addition to Christie, a number of Interior employees have alleged harassment and intimidation as a result of their involvement in the case. Mona Infield, a computer specialist who contradicted the government's progress on the trust fund, has been on home duty for more than a year, still drawing an $80,000 salary.

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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