FROM THE ARCHIVE
Transcript: NPR on Indian trust
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TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2001

The following is a transcript of the NPR report "Interior Chief Faces Contempt of Court Charges," which aired on the "Morning Edition" program, December 10, 2001.

Host: "Interior Secretary Gale Norton goes on trial today. She and her assistant secretary for Indian Affairs are facing charges of contempt of court for allegedly failing to improve a badly managed trust fund. The fund handles hundreds of millions of dollars a year for native Americans for such things as oil and grazing rights. Norton is also charged with lying about the government's efforts. Most of the contempt charges stem from Interior Department actions before Norton became secretary, but plaintiffs say that matters have not gotten better since she took office. NPR's Emily Harris reports."

Harris: "Several actions that allegedly show contempt happened during the Clinton administration. They include not following court orders to start calculating how much money is past due Native Americans and lying to the court about progress on that task and on a new computer system to manage payments in the future. Plaintiff lawyer Keith Harper says other actions that also show contempt of court have happened since Norton took office."

Harper: "Norton is the one to file false reports. She herself filed false reports. Either she knew or should have known about IT security problems as soon as she came into office. We know that people that were her lieutenants knew about the IT security problems. Yet they did nothing about it."

Harris: "Last week a report done at the request of the court said that the government has known for a decade that the trust accounts are not secure. It also documented that a hacker easily using free software broke in and set up a false account. The judge immediately ordered all Department of Interior computers with ties to the Trust Systems be disconnected from the Internet until fixed.

"Responsibility for the long-time lack of security will be examined in the contempt trial. Attorney Herbert Fenster represents Secretary Norton."

Fenster: "I think what we are seeing here is the Secretary of the Department of the Interior relying on the reports of subordinates and the allegation that those reports on which she relied were not accurate. That is not a basis for contempt."

Harris: "Secretary Norton came into office eager to improve trust management. Her assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Neal McCaleb, who's also facing contempt charges, says his boss inherited a system that started to go wrong in the late 1800s and a more recent plan to clean up the mess. He says she immediately sought to identify progress and problems with a new study."

McCaleb: "The primary recommendation was that there was no single executive sponsor who is responsible, accountable and in control of the necessary resources to attack the job and that's one of the things that the Secretary has recommended."

Harris: "The judge overseeing this case did recently praise Norton for being more engaged than her predecessor Bruce Babbitt, but he has also harshly criticized her and government lawyers for delaying progress. Elouise Cobell is lead plaintiff in the class-action suit. She says the goal of the contempt trial is to force accountability."

Cobell: "We're driving it home to a lot of people's head that don't understand that this is money that belongs to people. It's letting the government know that this is a responsibility that's very serious."

Harris: "Plaintiffs also hope the contempt trial will show the need for an outside receiver to at least temporarily take over the government's management of the Indian trust. Emily Harris, NPR News, Washington."

Get the Story:
NPR covers BIA overhaul, trust fund (12/11)

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