Norton ordered to stand trial for 'fraud'
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Top Bush administration officials have "committed a fraud on the court" and must prove why they shouldn't be punished for their handling of the trust assets of more than 300,000 American Indians, a federal judge said on Wednesday.

Rejecting the overwhelming majority of arguments proffered by government attorneys, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb to stand trial next week to face civil contempt charges. Norton and McCaleb have "failed to comply" with court orders and have provided "false and misleading" information about their efforts to fix the system, said Lamberth.

Additionally, the judge wrote, Norton has provided him with conflicting documents that call into doubt whether she knows what she is doing. To start to resolve these and other questions, Lamberth will hold a hearing on Friday to determine potential witnesses in preparation for testimony beginning the following Monday.

The action represents a significant setback for the Bush administration. Having inherited the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action which has proved a steady embarrassment for the government since it was filed five years ago, Norton has promised to make trust reform a top priority.

But since then, Norton has engaged in "clearly contemptuous" behaviors, Lamberth said during a hearing in late October. Almost as soon as she took office, she signed off on a controversial statistical sampling plan the judge said yesterday was in defiance to his orders to provide a full and accurate accounting to Indian beneficiaries.

Although later scrapped, Lamberth in his order said the government must stand trial for "concealing" the actions taken on the accounting. He also said Norton has been "failing to disclose" the true status of reform by submitting "false and misleading" reports to his court.

Such strong wording all but guarantees Norton will be held in contempt, fined and possibly sent to jail, said Keith Harper, the Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the account holders. He expects the trial to be over within two weeks, given four blistering court watchdog reports whose factual findings Lamberth said cannot be questioned now.

"We're dealing with unchallenged factual conclusions that lead directly to a contempt finding," said Harper yesterday. "I don't see what's left to try."

Lamberth in February 1999 held then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover in contempt for not producing documents relevant to the case. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana lawyer whose frustration with the government pushed her to file the landmark claim, said the Bush administration obviously won't be faring any better.

"It is unbelievable that Norton and McCaleb wouldn’t have learned their lesson from Babbitt and Rubin," she said in a statement. "This is proof positive that the IIM trust must be taken away from Interior and placed in the hands of a receiver before true trust reform will ever have a chance."

Harper was in Spokane, Washington, presenting an update on the case to the National Congress of American Indians. He said tribal leaders have been overwhelmingly positive on a request to transfer individual assets to an outside caretaker.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and a leading critic of the Interior on trust issues, said he and other tribes are interested in submitting court briefs to show their support. A receiver is temporary whereas a proposal Norton has offered in response to the lawsuit is permanent and was developed without tribal input, he said.

"They messed up in consultation and they messed up in court," Hall said at the convention last night. "We think we can beat them on both issues."

McCaleb and Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who has told Lamberth he is in charge of trust reform, have also been at NCAI this week. The contempt order was issued as both were discussing Norton's plan to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core duties and hand the individual trust and 1,400 tribal ones that are not part of the IIM suit to a new agency.

McCaleb could not be reached for direct comment on being called to trial, as he left for Oklahoma yesterday afternoon. Instead, Eric Ruff, communications director for the Interior, issued a statement saying McCaleb and Norton "remain committed to trust reform."

"The matters in the court order reach back to 1999 and present a complex set of facts and circumstances," said Ruff. "The issues raised against Norton and McCaleb in their institutional capacities as department officials and not in their personal capacities."

While attorneys for the Indian plaintiffs have asked Lamberth to consider holding other government officials, attorneys and management in contempt, he didn't rule on the request but reserved the right to do so. Dennis Gingold, who also represents the account holders, said he expected Lamberth to take such action in the future.

Related Documents:
Order to Show Cause (11/28) | Interior Statement (11/28)

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton ordered to trial for 'fraud' (11/29)
Indian Country deserves answers (11/29)

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

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