Court cites 'troubling record' at Interior
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Department of Interior officials came "perilously close" to criminal contempt sanctions for refusing to abide by court orders, the federal judge overseeing the trust fund debacle has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth criticized department officials and their attorneys for failing to inform tens of thousands of employees of their rights. In a 10-page decision, he said the government offered no explanation for its "recalcitrance," which was covered up until a court official launched an investigation.

"Instead of complying, Interior waited for its contumacious conduct to be exposed by the Special Master, and only then supplicated this court and littered this litigation with explanations of inadvertence and post hoc regrets," Lamberth wrote on Tuesday.

Despite the harsh language, Lamberth "reluctantly" decided not to punish the contemptuous behavior. Citing recent actions taken by Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, he said the department has finally abided by his orders.

Compliance, however, took nearly two years. Lamberth's ruling centers on an "anti-reprisal" order that ensures Interior employees can provide truthful information about the trust fund without facing retaliation by their bosses.

As early as May 1999, the court sought to protect the employees, entering a follow-up order under Secretary Gale Norton in February 2001. But not until last fall did the department take steps to meet the directive.

Even then, the effort by Griles was complicated by other factors. After he mailed copies of the order to 10,000 Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Special Trustee employees, they were told to burn the document by former BIA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell for fear of anthrax.

Special master Alan Balaran looked into the matter and recommended action against Norton "on all fronts" in two separate recommendations made last year. He cited repeated delays under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, including failure by a senior manager, Ken Rossman, who has since been promoted to work for acting Special Trustee Donna Erwin.

Lamberth, in his ruling, said the department tried to "undermine" Balaran's authority.

The behavior prompted Lamberth to issue a warning to the department: "Although the court will stay its hand in this instance, future attempts to subvert the Special Master’s orders or to retaliate against witnesses will neither be tolerated nor met with such charity."

Get the Decision:
Memorandum and Opinion: Criminal Contempt Sanctions (11/12)

Relevant Documents:
Interior in Violation of Anti-Reprisal Order (September 2001) | SUPPLEMENTAL OPINION (October 2001)

Related Stories:
Interior's number two takes lead on trust reform (11/5)
Action against Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Contempt recommended for Interior on trust fund (10/1)