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Trust fund debacle consumed Norton at Interior

Gale Norton's bitter confirmation fight and close Senate vote gave her a hint of the controversy she would encounter as Secretary of the Department of the Interior but they were no preparation for the beating she took in Indian affairs.

Within weeks of joining the Bush administration, Norton was hit with a February 2001 court ruling that upheld the rights of individual Indians to a historical accounting of their funds. Although she had nothing to do with the appeal, it set the tone for her tenure, as the trust debacle consumed the Bush administration like no other administration prior.

For the following two years after the decision, Norton dedicated most of her energies to Indian trust, having created a new office to complete the accounting, proposed a new entity to oversee the government's fiduciary obligations and created a task force with tribal leaders when that idea faltered. At a raucous House Resources Committee hearing in February 2002, she unhappily estimated the issue was taking up more than half of her time.

"I am spending, well, certainly, more on this issue than any other single issue," Norton said. "For the last few months, perhaps more than all other issues put together."

Several months later, Cobell v. Norton hit even harder. In September 2002, she was held in contempt of court for failing to abide by judicial mandates to conduct the accounting and report trust reform progress back to the federal judge handling the case.

The news overshadowed an Indian economic development summit Norton was attending in Phoenix. At a terse news conference, she immediately announced her intention to appeal the decision and downplayed suggestions that the task force was about to derail.

But the contempt citation had a freeing effect of sorts on Norton. By the end of the year, she dropped out of sight on Indian issues altogether and stopped going to the tribal conferences and meetings that she had proudly attended for the first two years of her tenure.

And confirming that the trust reform task force was already on its last leg, she allowed it to die at the end of 2002 while her Indian affairs aide, Neal McCaleb, resigned after liked being held in contempt to having a "gun cocked" to his head.

Norton no longer spent a considerable portion of her time on Indian trust.

An appeals court eventually cleared Norton of the contempt charges but the decision failed to return the secretary to Indian Country. Since the July 2003 ruling, she has largely shied from all Indian issues, underscoring what tribal leaders and members of Congress say is the Bush administration's negative handling of the trust debacle.

"The fact that the Cobell litigation remains unsettled impedes our progress with the federal government on nearly all other issues," said Joe Garcia, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, in his State of Indian Nations address last month.

The focus on trust reform means the administration has advanced little in terms of economic development, law enforcement and other high-priority issues on the tribal agenda. Her two Indian affairs assistant secretaries resigned amid clouds on their record and the position remains unfilled more than a year later after the last departure.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle attack her lack of leadership on federal recognition. Funding for construction of new Indian schools, which she touted as a high priority, has slowed down. Other BIA programs have been cut to pay for trust reform.

Two different sets of land-into-trust regulations were rescinded by Norton in her first two years in office. They are only getting attention now due to the controversies over Indian gaming and Jack Abramoff.

Norton's department has been touched by the scandal, with her former deputy J. Steven Griles under investigation for his dealings with Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to a conspiracy to defraud tribes and bribe a member of Congress. Norton's close associate, Italia Federici, a Republican who heads an environmental organization, is also under scrutiny.

No evidence has surfaced to tie Norton to Abramoff, and she has said her resignation had nothing to do with the investigation. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, also said Norton hasn't been implicated.

Resignation Letter:
Norton to Bush (March 9, 2006)

News Release:
Secretary Norton Announces Departure from Interior (DOI 3/10)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Interior Department -