Federal prosecutor rejects criticism of Justice Department
Senate Indian Affairs Committee business meeting and hearing on a draft bill to address law and order in Indian Country. June 19, 2008.
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A leading federal prosecutor defended the efforts of the Bush administration on Thursday amid criticism of the dismal state of law enforcement in Indian Country.

U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert chairs the Native American Issues Subcommittee at the Department of Justice. Her predecessors in that post were Margeret Chiara, who was fired in December 2006, and Tom Heffelfinger, who was targeted for removal for spending "too much time" on Indian issues, according to Congressional testimony.

But Shappert, who serves the Western District of North Carolina, rejected claims that the administration has ignored Indian Country. American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer the highest crime rates in the country and that Native women are far more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than any other group, according to government statistics.

"I have never been reprimanded, discouraged or in any way inhibited in my ability or in my efforts to prosecute and [move] forward the initiative in Indian Country," Shappert told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Shappert acknowledged that U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey doesn't have a background in Indian issues. But she said one of his first actions was to meet tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., and to travel to Arizona to discuss tribal justice concerns.

"He recognized that it needed to be a department priority," Shappert testified.

Shappert said her subcommittee, which consists of U.S. Attorneys from districts with significant Native populations, meets regularly to advise Mukasey. Its members include U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa of Arizona, a member of the Hopi Tribe who is the first Native woman to serve as a federal prosecutor.

The picture Shappert painted differs widely from the one seen under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In a move that still hasn't been fully explained, his top aides in Washington fired eight U.S. Attorneys, five of whom were prominent Native advocates, including Humetewa's predecessor.

The National Congress of American Indians criticized the purge and questioned the administration's commitment. But on the day NCAI President Joe Garcia, whose home state of New Mexico lost its U.S. attorney, was to meet with Gonzales, the Cabinet official resigned.

Garcia testified yesterday and said little has changed despite new leadership. "Now we have a revolving cast of characters at DOJ committed to the status quo," said Garcia, the chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council.

"No one is held accountable and the crime statistics continue to mount," Garcia told the committee. In his written testimony, he cited Humetewa's appearance at a Senate field hearing in Arizona in March and said she commended DOJ for doing a "great job."

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, agreed with the tribal criticism. "It seems to me that the current system doesn't work," he told Shappert, citing a report he delivered to Mukasey in which a federal prosecutors was allegedly reprimanded for focusing on Indian Country.

Dorgan and other members of the committee have developed a draft bill that seeks to address law and order on reservations. A key provision would require DOJ to report on the number of cases it declines to prosecute.

According to a recent Denver Post series, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 62 percent of reservation criminal cases and there has been a 27 percent decrease in criminal investigations by the FBI from 2001 through 2006.

Ron His Horse is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the bill needs to go further than written. He asked the committee to add a provision that requires federal prosecutors to turn over all information they have about crimes they don't prosecute.

"If they decline to prosecute a case, we should be able to take it up," His Horse is Thunder said. "But we need the full case file."

Shappert vehemently opposed any provisions related to declination. She told the committee that such data isn't readily available and if it were, it would lead to misinterpretation. She also said that creating declination reports would undermine the federal government's prosecuting procedures.

"If the Department of Justice can't even tell us how many they've declined, I don't understand what kind of track they're keeping of these issues," Dorgan said in response.

The draft bill was distributed to tribal leaders last week. It includes sections on funding, personnel, detention facilities, domestic violence and the Indian Civil Rights Act.

Committee Notice:
BUSINESS MEETING to consider pending legislative issues, to be followed immediately by a HEARING on a draft bill to address law and order in Indian country. (June 19, 2008)

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