Norton fights trust fund contempt citation
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Making good on an earlier threat, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton this week launched a challenge to a federal judge's decision that declared her and Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb "unfit" to manage money belonging to 500,000 American Indians.

Government attorneys filed a one-paragraph notice of appeal on Monday night, just hours before the deadline expired. No mention was made of the grounds on which Norton and Assistant Secretary McCaleb plan to fight five contempt and misconduct charges for their handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

Dan DuBray, a Department of Interior spokesperson, refused to elaborate. "Any comment I would make about the filing would be in the filing," he said.

The move brought criticism from Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the six-year-old case. "Desperate people take desperate actions," she said from Denver, Colorado. "I don't think they have any grounds for an appeal."

The sentiments were echoed by the president of the largest inter-tribal organization. Also in Denver, Tex Hall of the National Congress of American Indians said the Bush administration was in "denial" about the rampant mismanagement of Indian funds.

"I think DOI just doesn't get it," he said. "For them to appeal, they don't get it or they are in denial. It's really disheartening to Indian Country when these things go back and forth."

Hall, an IIM account holder from North Dakota, testified during the 29-day contempt trial that concluded earlier this year. Witness after witness corroborated the dismal state of the trust, from inadequate records to the failure of a $40 million computer system that was pitched as a fix to years of incompetence.

After months of deliberation, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on September 17 found Norton and McCaleb in contempt for lying to his court about efforts to reform the broken trust. He also cited the government for misconduct for failing to conduct an historical accounting of money owed to individual Indians.

"In my fifteen years on the bench I have never seen a litigant make such a concerted effort to subvert the truth seeking function of the judicial process," he wrote in his 267-page decision. "I am immensely disappointed that I see such a litigant today and that the litigant is a department of the United States government."

"The Department of Interior is truly an embarrassment to the federal government in general and the executive branch in particular."

At the time, Norton blasted the ruling as unfair. "The decision reflects in large part and devotes its findings to actions that took place . . . before either Neal McCaleb or I took office," she said.

Since then, Norton has come under fire for submitting reports that excised negative comments about the trust. A court investigation, which could lead to additional contempt sections, is underway.

Based on the notice of appeal, the government plans to challenge three of Lamberth's court orders. One describes the five contempt charges and sets a schedule for the next phase of the case. By January 6, the Interior is to submit a plan detailing how it will administer the IIM trust.

The other orders affect the appointment of Joseph S. Kieffer III as special master-monitor. Starting in July 2001, Kieffer authored several scathing reports that played a key role in the contempt trial.

Norton and her senior aides, including Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Indian Trust Transition Director Ross Swimmer, subsequently challenged Kieffer's role in the case. But Lamberth rejected their request to remove Kieffer in a ruling that said Griles came "perilously close to perjury."

If the contempt challenge moves forward, it would be heard by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that unanimously affirmed Lamberth's continued oversight of the Interior. A three-judge panel in February 2001 said: "absent court intervention, discharge of the government's fiduciary obligations may yet be far off."

Relevant Documents:
Notice of Appeal (November 18, 2002)

Get the Contempt Decision:
Contempt Findings (September 17, 2002)

Related Court Orders:
Contempt Order (September 17, 2002) | Denying Motion to Revoke Court Monitor Appointment (September 17, 2002) | Appointing Special Master-Monitor (September 17, 2002)

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

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