FROM THE ARCHIVE

Judge questions role in trust fund 'circus'

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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2001

A federal judge expressed grave reservations about his role in trust reform on Wednesday, questioning why no one at the Department of Interior appears to have listened to his landmark December 1999 ruling nearly two years to the day after it was issued.

"It makes you wonder why I am here," said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. "I'm sitting here thinking, 'What have I accomplished?'"

"I just don't know," he said, answering himself.

Coming eight days into a grueling contempt trial against two top Bush administration officials, Lamberth's doubts reflect his frustration with the federal government's handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Although only one witness has taken the stand, the testimony provided so far has been visibly discomforting to the court.

But Lamberth's involvement stretches far beyond Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, who inherited the debacle earlier this year. Having presided over the class action IIM lawsuit for five and one-half years, he has seen the Interior switch legal times three times, ask for numerous delays and spend millions of dollars defending itself from attack while spending millions more making promises it has been unable to keep.

And despite receiving directives from Congress and his court, Lamberth has watched the Interior fail to live up to its most basic obligation to the account holders, court investigations and the contempt testimony has shown. After ordering the government on December 21, 1999, to provide a full and accurate historical accounting of the assets of 300,000 American Indians "without regard to when the funds were deposited," the project has been thwarted repeatedly, a senior trust official has confirmed.

Despite the seemingly dismal state of affairs, that witness, Tommy Thompson, attempted to assuage Lamberth yesterday. "In some cases, we have completed the tasks we promised you," he testified.

But throughout the day, Lamberth appeared to chip away at the premise. He noted that EDS Corporation, a third-party consulting firm, has essentially told Norton to shut down the cornerstone of trust reform, a $40 million software system known as the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

When told that some of the information contained in the EDS assessment was reported to the Interior in two years ago by yet another consultant, Lamberth questioned why the government spends money but won't heed the warnings. "Why do we pay that if we don't listen to what they recommend?" he said.

With trial testimony resuming today, Lamberth told attorneys for the Indian beneficiaries and the government to speed the proceedings up as much as possible. He will break on Friday and won't return to the bench until January 4, 2002, he said.

He also said he will not be in the country January 16-30. To resolve scheduling and timing issues, he suggested yesterday that special master Alan Balaran conduct depositions of 39 past and present government representatives to satisfy Norton's numerous objections to reports by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III.

"We can have a circus here with the 39 law firms," Lamberth said, referring to the private counsel retained -- at taxpayers' expense of up to $125 an hour -- by those wanted in contempt. "If the government wants a complete record, we can build a complete record."

Today on Indianz.Com:
TAAMS: The Titanic Failure (12/20)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Norton ordered to submit trust fund report (12/18)
Judge rebuffs Norton challenge (12/17)
Week two of trial continues today (12/17)
History of neglect drives trust case (12/17)
Judge eager for Norton testimony (12/13)
Editorial: Bad faith, wasted dollars (12/13)
Confusion, conflict detailed at Interior (12/12)
Exclusive: Trust reform assessment (12/12)
Lamberth pokes fun at government (12/12)
EDS trust reform report online (12/12)
Coverage of Contempt Trial, Day 2 (12/12)
Contempt trial continues (12/11)
Contested reports focus of contempt trial (12/11)
The Trial: Witnesses to Contempt (12/11)
Coverage of Contempt Trial, Day 1 (12/11)
Norton contempt trial opens (12/10)
Norton attacks court monitor (12/10)
Norton set for contempt trial (12/10)
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