Records a continued source of problems in lawsuit
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JANUARY 18, 2001

Responding to concerns of retaliation for reporting continued destruction of government documents, employees of the Department of Interior on Wednesday were urged special protections in the ongoing billion-dollar trust fund lawsuit.

The move comes as the General Accounting Office yesterday cited "significant" problems affecting full accountability of funds held in trust for nearly 500,000 Native Americans throughout the country.

For nearly five years, the Interior has been the target of a lawsuit filed on behalf of all Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders. Through the course of litigation, the Department has been been forced to make changes in how it manages $3 billion in funds by addressing document production, record-keeping, and record preservation.

But despite orders to preserve government documents relating to the case, court officials have continued to receive reports of record-destroying. Yesterday, the special master for the case, Alan Balaran, asked the Department of Justice to ensure that employees of the Interior won't be retaliated against should they report such destruction. A protective order has been in place since 1999 but issues of retaliation have continued to dog the Department.

Balaran quoted a letter he received from a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee at the Northern Cheyenne agency. The employee alerted Balaran to destruction of 160 boxes of records there and wrote: "Even though I'm providing this information to you and I feel that I'm doing the right thing, I still have a big of fear of retaliation especially as I have no protection."

Balaran also asked that employees contact him directly should they come across record destruction and said the information would be kept confidential. On the website for the group who initiated the lawsuit, Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker who is the lead plaintiff in the case, alerted Interior employees to protections afforded them.

The plaintiffs yesterday also reported filing of a motion aimed at forcing the government to keep producing all relevant documents. Although a 1996 court order required them to do so, the Interior has sought to limit what types of documents it should provide, citing privacy and "trade secret" issues.

Meanwhile, the Interior says it is investigating the destruction of documents reported by the BIA employee. Balaran said he would wait until the investigation is complete before filing a formal report with the court on the matter.

Relevant Links:
The Department of Interior -
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Babbitt -

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