Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt
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A clearly angry federal judge on Tuesday told lawyers for Secretary of Interior Gale Norton she should throw herself "before the mercy of the court" if she intends to escape being held in contempt for her handling of the trust fund.

From her very first action as trustee for an estimated 300,000 American Indians, Norton has engaged in "clearly contemptuous" behavior, said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. By approving a controversial and costly statistical sampling plan just days after an appeals court upheld his landmark decision, Lamberth said Norton ignored court orders directing the government to provide trust beneficiaries with a full, historical accounting of their funds.

And even though she eventually decided to scrap the proposal in favor of what Lamberth told the government to do back in December 1999, her subsequent actions haven't helped matters, he said. Not only has she failed to communicate with his court, Lamberth questioned why she turned in a status report one month late, after allowing her top staff to engage in "game playing" over its contents.

"What was she doing?" Lamberth asked of a report his court has characterized as "untruthful, inacurate and incomplete."

"What was she thinking?"

But if Lamberth was looking to Norton's defense team, who just joined the case as reported yesterday by Indianz.Com, to provide answers, he wasn't finding any. In response to a number of his questions, her lawyers -- led by Mark Nagle, chief of the civil division at the U.S. Attorneys office in Washington, D.C. -- could barely find words to respond to Lamberth's criticism.

What they did ask for was yet another extension to an already long-delayed case. Nagle said the government needed until December 15 to provide an "accurate" and "complete" response to a lengthy motion lawyers for the plaintiffs filed seeking to take the trust fund out of Norton's hands and hold her and 38 government representatives in contempt.

"We are viewing this matter with the utmost gravity," said Nagle.

Skeptical, Lamberth questioned if the government really took the charges seriously, having changed legal teams for the third time since the start of the lawsuit five years ago. He openly doubted how Nagle could defend Norton when she has been in "absolute violation" of his orders, and warned that his group might "majorly fail" in their effort.

But while lawyer Dennis Gingold, representing the Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders that are part of the Cobell v. Norton class action suit, argued against any more delays, Lamberth decided to give Nagle part of he wanted and told the government it has until November 15 to plead its case.

"I hope the goverment," he said of the extension, "will tell me who is in charge of trust reform because it sure is not obvious to me that anybody is in charge at the government."

"It's allegedly the Secretary," he added, "but she sure doesn't act like it."

With or without a delay, the plaintiffs said they were ready to go to trial against Norton and move forward with the second phase of their case -- restating what account holders are due for decades of mismanagement. "Enough is enough is enough," said Gingold. "Nobody's doing anything here. This has got to stop."

"Our clients cannot afford any delays," he added.

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker, made the trip from Montana to attend yesterday's proceedings in Washington, D.C. After the hearing, she said she understood Lamberth's growing impatience with the government.

"Now he knows what it's like to be an Indian: to be lied to," said Cobell. "The same thing [the government] told the judge is what we've been told for 100 years."

Once the government files its response, Lamberth plans on holding an update on November 30. Gingold said he believes the date will serve as the start of civil and criminal contempt proceedings.

Also appearing in court were 20 additional private lawyers, representing current and former officials and employees of the Departments of Interior and Justice. Due to the monumental nature of the charges, the government said it needs to "coordinate" with counsel for persons including former Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Solicitor John Leshy and Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs Sharon Blackwell.

Keith Parsky, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was unable to confirm by press time whether Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, who is a named defendant, has retained his own legal counsel in addition to being represented by the Department of Justice and Interior Solicitor Bill Myers.

Myers was the only member of Norton's administration who showed up in court. McCaleb is currently attending a highway transportation conference in New Mexico.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
Trust fund defense team scrapped (10/30)
Action on Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Norton views broken trust fund system (10/29)