Bush administration targets trust fund monitor
Facebook Twitter Email
TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2002

Senior Bush administration officials accused a judicial investigator of bias in a lengthy court filing aimed at ousting the Indian trust reform monitor from his oversight role at the Department of Interior.

In a broad attack that intimated the involvement of the federal judge overseeing the bitter case, court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III was charged with numerous improprieties. According to three sworn declarations describing a testy mid-April meeting, the former military intelligence specialist threatened to expose the officials unless they cooperated with his ongoing investigation into efforts to correct more than a century of trust fund mismanagement.

"I believe the intent of the conversation was to compel the Department of Interior's senior management to embrace the court monitor's point of view or endure the adverse appraisal to be forthcoming in his report," said Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason in a statement dated June 4.

Attempts to challenge U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth would be fruitless, the officials allege they were told. Lamberth, appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, has presided over the case for six years and endured an unsuccessful appeal of his landmark December 1999 ruling.

"[Kieffer] stated that Judge Lamberth was a poker-playing friend with the chief justice (or chief judge) and that he would not overturn Judge Lamberth's decision," Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said in a June 4 declaration.

Indian Trust Transition Director Ross Swimmer also provided his recollection of the highly charged encounter held at the Interior's main office building in Washington, D.C. "[H]e said that the judge was sure to find the Secretary in contempt," the May 30 document stated.

But the views of the department's top trust reform officials were notably absent in the court filing. Although Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, a Clinton appointee, and his aide Tommy Thompson, a career government employee, took part in the conversation, no declarations were provided.

The exclusion cast doubt on the Bush administration's spin of the April 19 meeting, which had been requested by the department. According to the declarations, Griles attempted to call off the discussion in light of another court report released the day prior but Kieffer insisted it continue.

Intimating a higher involvement, the officials said Lamberth was aware of the meeting and in fact "authorized" it. "[Kieffer] admonished the group to not take notes of the conversation," Cason stated.

The lack of confirmation was viewed as suspect by attorneys representing 300,000 American Indians whose $500 million in annual assets are at the heart of the class action. "If there's something that gets under the skin of the department more than anything else, it's telling the truth," said Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund.

Slonaker and Thompson testified on behalf of the Indian beneficiaries during Secretary Gale Norton's contempt trial. Along with other senior members of the Office of the Special Trustee, they also have criticized the department's senior political leadership and government attorneys for attempting to limit their obligations to Indian Country -- a view echoed by Kieffer in his reports.

"This is just a warning to all those that may think of criticizing them," said Harper of the Interior and its attorneys.

The court declarations were accompanied by another document calling for Kieffer's dismissal. Government attorneys charged him with prejudice and said his presence at recent meetings of a joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform "threaten public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our court system," the June 14 filing stated.

Kieffer was invited to attend the talks by the department and by tribal leaders. Norton's attorneys attached a transcript of a May meeting but the only outstanding feature was his statement that Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb "has gone out of his way to support the Special Trustee."

Yet another filing disputed a $54,307.34 legal bill. The Bush administration agreed to reimburse Kieffer at the rate of $250 an hour but now demand a more thorough accounting of his fees.

Relevant Documents:
J. Steven Griles Declaration | Jim Cason Declaration | Ross Swimmer Declaration

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

Related Stories:
Trust fund monitor attacked (6/17)
Task force met with skepticism (6/17)