Feisty memos at heart of trust reform feud
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MONDAY, MAY 20, 2002

The letter was terse and to the point. Tommy Thompson, the second highest-ranking trust reform official at the Department of Interior, accused government attorneys who are supposed to provide him with legal advice of keeping an important document from him.

"I wish to know why the Solicitor and the Department of Justice did not share [the letter] in a timely manner, Thompson wrote on April 24.

He was referring to a March 29 document drafted by a Department of Justice attorney which offered a less than glowing review of the program under his watch. Hinting vaguely of "serious consequences," Sandra Spooner in equally obtuse language charged that "some portions" of the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) "appear disinclined" to help the government defend itself from a court report which faulted its records management policies, or lack thereof.

But Spooner, it seems, never found the time to share her critique with the target of her concerns. Her "self-serving" statements -- in Thompson's eyes -- went only to Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Larry Jensen, the personal counsel to Solicitor Bill Myers.

Yet when asked, Spooner -- and that same circle of Norton's top aides, Thompson hints -- denied the letter even existed almost a month after it was written. "This situation is further aggravating," he said.

"Unfortunately, this episode is all too representative of past events, and once again, at least for me, raises issues of trust, confidence, and an apparent conflict of interest within the Department of Justice," Thompson concluded.

A personal apology came two days later from Myers.

'A Significant Disservice'
Special Trustee Tom Slonaker was in San Diego, California, at the tribal leaders' task force on trust reform when the transmission arrived. It was a fax from Secretary Gale Norton.

Her words were hurried as she pressed Slonaker to provide a sworn statement -- under penalty of perjury -- in response to the records management investigation Spooner was so worried about. "I am advised that you are refusing to provide a declaration for this purpose," she wrote.

"Your unwillingness to take responsibility for the information you have provided is a significant disservice to the department and to those who might be held responsible," she continued.

Norton was obviously perturbed with what she took as Slonaker's lack of cooperation. Over the past two weeks, she reminded him, they met three times and discussed his "past unwillingness" to certify information to the court overseeing the debacle.

But here was Slonaker, with the clock ticking on a deadline to respond to the report, seemingly refusing to help out. "You assured me that would no longer be a problem," she warned.

Norton's memo would go unanswered for five more days.

Part II of 'Indian Trust: Conflicts of Interest' will follow.

Relevant Documents:
Spooner: Serious Consequences (3/29) | Thompson: Conflict of Interest (4/24) | Norton: A Significant Disservice (4/25) | Myers: A Late Apology (4/26)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -