Trust fund defense team scrapped
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In a move pointing to the volatile and monumental nature of the trust fund debacle, the federal government has scrapped the entire legal team that was defending Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and other top officials for failing to live to up their responsibilities to an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

The Justice Department's environment and natural resources division had been providing Norton, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Treasury with legal services from the start of the Cobell v. Norton class action suit five years ago. But with new charges piling up against Norton and 38 officials, attorneys and senior management, two new teams have been put on the case.

Now, the agencies will be getting their defense from the civil division of the Justice Department. Additionally, U.S. Attorneys, also part of the Justice Department, have been assigned to answer to contempt charges that have been recommended against Norton and have been sought against numerous others.

The 11th hour move comes as the government prepares for a status conference today in federal court. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who has presided over the lawsuit since its inception, has called for an update following months of stinging reports issued by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III and damning opinions authored by special master Alan Balaran.

But since the government has responded to the criticism with additional support, it is expected the new attorneys will seek to delay a case that has frustrated both the Clinton and Bush administrations and has festered for more than one hundred years. Having had many of their complaints go unanswered for up to a year, the lawyers for the plaintiffs plan to oppose such a request, said Dennis Gingold, a Washington D.C. attorney who represents beneficiaries to the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

Saying the government's problem is "self-inflicted," Gingold also insisted the change in strategy would not affect the plaintiff's case. "We've been ready for a generation," he said.

"This is the biggest mess I've ever seen," said Gingold.

The civil division of the Justice Department is the largest within the agency. It has over 700 attorneys who specialize in cases involving fraud, government programs and Constitutional challenges -- topics central to the trust fund debate.

U.S. Attorneys are more well known for the services they provide to the federal government in states and for prosecuting crimes in Indian Country. But they also are responsible for defending the government in various disputes.

While smaller, the environmental division also employs hundreds. During the Clinton administration, it actively pursued land and water claims on behalf of tribes.

When it came to the Cobell suit, though, nearly a dozen were assigned and their actions now being called into question. In recent months, the team, which includes attorneys Sarah Himmeloch, Philip Brooks and Charles Findlay, has been cited by Kieffer for providing misleading and false information to Judge Lamberth.

The Justice Department, however, has regaled them with honors. In July 2000, then-Attorney General Janet Reno singled out the team "for demonstrating extraordinary skill and dedication" to the trust fund fight, saying they helped "to restore the credibility of the United States."

Whether current Attorney General John Ashcroft or other Bush administration officials feel the same way is unknown. A spokesperson yesterday declined to comment on the last-minute switch in legal teams but said he has been unable to contact any of those involved in the debacle.

"I honestly cannot find any of these attorneys," Charles Miller said of the environmental division.

The Department of Interior did not return a request for comment.

Tom Sansonetti, President Bush's pick to head the environmental division, has not seen his nomination acted upon by the Senate. He is employed by the same law firm that produced Interior Solicitor Bill Myers, criticized for intimidating BIA managers and also wanted in contempt.

Relevant Links:
Civil Division, Department of Justice -
U.S. Attorneys -
Environmental and Natural Resources Division, DOJ -
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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