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Norton contempt trial opens

A federal judge this morning started contempt proceedings against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth had little remarks at the onset of the trial, noting only he had signed an emergency order on Saturday to reconnect certain non-Bureau of Indian Affairs systems back to the Internet. He also said the parties to the case should meet to discuss a lengthy list of objections Norton raised on Friday.

With that, Dennis Gingold, an attorney representing 300,000 American Indian beneficiaries to the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, gave his opening remarks, stating that Norton has "thrown down the gauntlet." He said he expected the trial to take "months" because of the numerous challenges raised by the government's defense team.

As a result, Gingold said he and his team would be going over -- in minute detail -- every sentence, finding and conclusion made by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III in his reports.

Mark Nagle, chief of the civil division at the U.S. Attorneys office in Washington, D.C., made a brief statement but reserved his opening remarks for the start of the government's witnesses. However, he did said he believed Norton would escape from the trial without sanctions.

Gingold then immediately called to the stand Tommy Thompson, the Principal Deputy Special Trustee for American Indians. A career bureaucrat, Thompson said he agreed to testify after receiving a call from Gingold and made some preparations over the weekend.

From about 10:50 a.m. till the recess of the trial at about 4:20 p.m., Gingold and Thompson engaged in a question and answer testimony on a large array of topics. Breaking only for lunch and two brief pauses, the pair went over the five main charges brought against Norton and McCaleb.

Thompson testified that he thought Kieffer's reports were a fair and accurate assessment of the government's trust reform efforts to date. As to certain specific conclusions, he said he agreed but on others, he reserved answers.

The testimony was peppered with direct questions by Lamberth. He had a number of concerns about the quality of reports provided to his court, the status of data cleanup, the large amount of probate cases and the state of the $40 million Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

Occasionally, one of Norton's attorneys would raise an objection -- all but one were overruled by Lamberth. At one point, the attorney objected to a question Lamberth himself posed to Thompson.

Lamberth overruled the objection.

Lamberth then broke for the day, with Thompson expected to be on the stand the rest of the week. Marcella Giles, a private practitioner who has represented some individual Indians on trust cases, is also expected to be called.

McCaleb personally made an appearance in the courtroom, with cane in tow. He has been walking with assistance since the end of November, when problems surfaced at the National Congress of American Indians in Spokane, Washington.

After the lunch break, McCaleb did not return.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles also made an appearance. According to Nagle, he will sit through the entire trial as the Secretary's designee. Nagle said Norton had other business to attend to, after Gingold questioned why she couldn't come "down the street in a limosuine" to the court.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton attacks court monitor (12/10)
Norton set for contempt trial (12/10)
Indian panel urging BITAM slow down (12/10)
Editorial: Appoint IIM receiver (12/10)
Floods more important than Indians (12/10)

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