Judge's role in Norton's future recognized
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With a federal judge poised to take action against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on a number of fronts, foes of her pending reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are expecting court action to seal the controversial plan's fate.

The appointment of a receiver for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust gives the Bush administration little incentive to move forward with a new agency to handle $3.1 billion in Indian assets, tribal leaders asserted this week. Along with attorneys representing more than 300,000 Indian account holders who are calling for an outside caretaker, they hope U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth will deal the final blow to a proposal they have opposed from the start.

"If Judge Lamberth accepts the motion for receivership, the Department of Interior's reorganization is a moot point," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and a leading opponent of Norton's scheme. "It goes out the window."

In a lengthy court filing submitted by the IIM account holders last month, Lamberth was urged to appoint a temporary overseer. He has yet to rule on the request, which has been vehemently challenged by Norton's attorneys.

But even before he makes his decision, Lamberth's contempt proceedings against Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb should serve as a wake up of sorts, tribal leaders said. In addition to causing a "huge annoyance" and "embarrassment" for the government, they expect the trial -- scheduled to start on Monday -- to encourage Norton and her top officials to work more closely on a solution to more than 100 years of financial mismanagement.

"The tribes have been listening to a constant barrage of rhetoric about how important the resolution of this issue is," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, pointing out promises made by numerous administrations to make trust reform a "high priority."

"But when you hear that, the question is, are the actions louder than the words?" he said. "This trial . . . will cause the administration to say, 'we really have to focus on this problem.'"

Although tribes expect Norton's dominos to fall with a contempt finding and a move to receivership, they aren't convinced judicial action alone will ensure adequate resolution of trust management issues. Sanctions for the Clinton administration didn't appear to have much success, they acknowledged.

With that in mind, tribes have widened the assault that emerged this week at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians. Hall, who was elected on Thursday as president of the organization, said he and other tribal leaders are developing a "strategy" that includes "legislation and litigation" to successful reform.

Already, the more than 200 member tribes of NCAI have called on Congress to prevent Norton from using any fiscal year 2002 funds to try and create the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management. They also want Congress to stop appropriation of future money for the effort.

In terms of court action, tribal leaders are considering various avenues. "The tribes have to use whatever course of action that will force the administration or the federal government to respond to them appropriately and responsibly," said Allen.

At the same time, attorneys representing the IIM lawsuit, of which tribes are not a party, are planning to use tribal opposition to bolster their own claims. Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund said Norton's plan is not only disastrous to his clients but to Indian Country as well.

"Everybody understands this [proposal] does not fundamentally address trust management issues [and] has potentially negative effects on tribes," Harper said. "We just want to make the court well aware of these well grounded concerns that tribes have expressed."

Lamberth today will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. in federal district court in Washington, D.C. He plans to identify potential witnesses for next week's contempt trial, which starts Monday at 10 a.m.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior slammed on trust fund progress (11/30)
New NCAI president vows BIA fight (11/30)

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

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