Contested reports focus of Norton contempt tria
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A senior Department of Interior official on Monday lent significant support to a series of court reports his boss Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has largely challenged, setting the stage for lengthy contempt proceedings that could take months to resolve.

Testifying on the opening day of a highly anticipated trial, Tommy Thompson was the first witness called to the stand to address five contempt charges laid against top Bush officials for their handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. A career bureaucrat in the Office of the Special Trustee, which reports directly to Norton, Thompson appeared at the wishes of attorneys representing 300,000 Indian plaintiffs whose $500 million in annual assets are so poorly mismanaged that no administration -- Democrat or Republican -- has been able to guarantee any account balance is correct.

Despite this paltry record, Thompson, as a government official, is one of the few "credible" links the plaintiffs have to the Clinton and Bush administration, acknowledged attorney Dennis Gingold. As the Principal Deputy Special Trustee and the second highest-ranking trust fund official at the Interior, his testimony is regarded as key to proving the case against Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Recognizing such distinction, Gingold wasted little time pressing Thompson for his views on the the findings and conclusions of court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III. In an attempt to stave off a contempt citation, Norton's attorneys have raised a large number of objections to Kieffer's reports, citing numerous reasons why certain allegations should be rejected.

But to Thompson, the four reports and a supplemental have painted an accurate picture of trust reform, at least at the time of their issuance. One by one, he said he believed Kieffer has presented a "fair representation" in each of the documents.

"I would credit it with quite a bit of accuracy," Thompson said of the first report, which detailed the Clinton administration's failure to move forward an accounting of Indian funds and Norton's decision to sign off on a statistical sampling -- later dropped -- with little research into the project.

Of particular importance to Thompson -- and perhaps to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who happens to handle terrorism and national security issues in addition to overseeing the trust fund debacle -- was Kieffer's military background. Kieffer served in the U.S. Army's intelligence corps and was a special assistant to the U.S. Attorneys office in Washington, D.C., on military issues.

"My basic sense of his approach was that it was very thorough so I would tend to give it quite a bit of credence even if I didn't understand some of the issues," said Thompson of Kieffer's methodology.

Thompson testified that his own training in and experience in performing "counter espionage" probes was similar. "What was the ultimate goal of the investigations, to elicit the truth?" asked Gingold.

"Absolutely," replied Thompson.

At the same time, Thompson's support was not absolute. Some specific conclusions were based on information for which he did not have first knowledge, he said, while he reserved an answer for future testimony on others.

Additionally, Thompson testified he could not recall certain parts of Kieffer's reports or even portions of the Interior's own court-mandated status updates which his office has prepared since the fall of 2000. But with the trial just getting underway, Thompson will have plenty of opportunities to respond, as Gingold said he intends to go over each document line-by-line in order to make the charges against Norton and McCaleb stick.

"They have abused this court," said Gingold of the officials. "They have abused the trust."

"Every single day that this trust is not fixed or in the hands of an unfit trustee" the legacy of American Indians whose ancestors died for their land is being wasted, he added. "This court is the only institution in the country that can stop this."

Mark Nagle, chief of the civil division at the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., did not make an opening statement but reserved one once the government calls its own witnesses. But he said he believed Norton's objections have been overstated and that the punishment was not due for the government.

"We are confident that the evidence this court will hear," said Nagle," will establish that contempt sanctions are not warranted."

In attendance at the courtroom was Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker and lead plaintiff on the case. At the conclusion of yesterday's proceedings, she said Thompson's testimony proved why the IIM trust should be taken out of the hands of the Interior, where infighting and blame are the operating policies.

"It's clearly telling us why we don't want politicians managing our trust for us," she said. "There's been less progress. Conditions in managing the trust have gotten worse."

McCaleb also attended, departing court after lunch. Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who has told Lamberth in a sworn declaration he is now in charge of trust reform, will represent the Interior throughout the proceedings, said Nagle.

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

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