FROM THE ARCHIVE
Norton tries to convince judge on trust reform
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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2002

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Wednesday asked a skeptical federal judge for a "chance" to fix the Indian trust fund, a system she admitted was barely making the grade.

Collected and calm as she testified in her own contempt trial, Norton said she was determined to learn from the mistakes of the Clinton administration and make needed improvements in the management of not just the funds of 300,000 American Indians but of hundreds of tribes. As trustee, she is responsible for $3.1 billion in assets on 54 million acres of individually- and tribally-owned land but acknowledged she was not meeting her responsibilities to either completely.

"We have a system that is still not working to our satisfaction," she said. "We've got the core to work from but we need to make a lot of improvements."

"I think we might get what might be considered a passing grade on a number of different things," she later said, after a long pause, when asked what functions her department was carrying out.

Facing pressure from the court, lawmakers and tribes, Norton could offer no timetable for making her proposed changes, which include stripping the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core duties and handing them to a new entity. Although she testified she would use whatever "power" to make changes administratively, she said "political consensus" was needed before moving forward.

"It is not a question of if, but of when," she asserted.

Norton's testimony came 27 days into her trial, which began in December 10 and moved at a rather slow place due to objections her attorneys later dropped. Now nearing its conclusion, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth must decide whether to hold her in contempt based on five charges she mishandled the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

Lamberth, who has voiced numerous complaints -- and occasional praises -- about Norton's behavior for the past year, has been carefully weighing the testimony he has received in recent weeks. Suggesting he was stung for believing former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former BIA computer official Dom Nessi before he made his landmark December 1999 ruling, he asked Norton yesterday why he should do the same for her.

"How would I rely on what you are telling me now?" he asked.

"I can understand your frustration," she responded. "We are motivated to get things done. We are in a better position to accomplish the results."

Fining the government $600,000, Lamberth in February 1999 previously held Babbitt, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover in contempt for not producing documents relevant to the case. A decision on Norton and current Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb will be made within the coming weeks, after the plaintiffs and government attorneys submit their final arguments.

Lamberth said he might call his own witnesses as he grapples with the decision to appoint a receiver for the IIM trust. A finding of contempt could pave the way for additional judicial oversight, in addition to special master Alan Balaran and court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, whom the plaintiffs want to assume control.

Lamberth will return to the bench next Wednesday.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton says plaintiffs' accounting complete (2/14)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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Norton concludes testimony (2/13)
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Norton agrees to testify (2/12)
Norton set for trial testimony (2/12)
Trust fund mess blamed on Babbitt (2/11)
Norton ordered to testify (2/8)
Trust system takes center stage in contempt (2/1)
Federal judge resuming Norton contempt trial (1/31)
Norton effort 'too little, too late' for judge (1/16)
Interior official denies trust fund 'conspiracy' (1/15)
Witness testifies against software corruption (1/15)
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Norton launches contempt defense (1/11)
Cobell plaintiffs rest case (1/10)
End in sight for Norton contempt trial (1/10)
Top trust official lacks 'confidence' in reform (1/9)
Babbitt, others dropped as witnesses (1/9)
Trial resumes with trust testimony (1/7)
Contempt trial resumes in federal court (1/4)
Cobell: Justice for Indian Country (12/24)
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Judge questions role in trust fund 'circus' (12/20)
TAAMS failure traced to promoted manager (12/20)
Ruling on court monitor put off (12/20)
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)
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Coverage of Contempt Trial, Day 2 (12/12)
Contempt trial continues (12/11)
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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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