Federal judge targets Norton aide for contempt
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's top aide was "acting in contempt" when she approved a statistical sampling of the trust assets of 300,000 American Indians, a federal judge said on Wednesday.

By agreeing to move forward with the controversial project, Deputy Chief of Staff Sue Ellen Wooldridge should have realized she was in violation of a December 1999 court order, said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. During the third day of testimony in a contempt trial against Norton, Lamberth expressed disbelief that his directive to conduct a full and accurate historical accounting of the funds was ignored over and over by top government officials.

Yet during several briefings provided to Norton and her staff after she took control of the Department of Interior in February 2001, no one pointed out the possible violation, according to a participant in the talks. Although he opposed the sampling during the Clinton administration because he believed it didn't comply with the order, Principal Deputy Special Trustee Tommy Thompson testified in court that he couldn't recall if he informed the Bush team of his views.

"When that decision was made, did it occur to you," said Lamberth, "that the Chief of Staff was acting in contempt of this court's order?"

"I can honestly say that thought did not pass through my mind," responded Thompson.

A career bureaucrat who joined the Interior in 1997, Thompson has been on the stand for the past three days, confirming many of the findings presented by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III. Chief among them were the Bush administration's early actions on the trust debacle.

In Kieffer's first report, Wooldridge took the blame for embracing the sampling. A special assistant attorney general in California who participated in the multi-state tobacco settlement in which Norton was a key player, she admitted in the report that she conducted little research into the issue, including the reasons why former Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed off on it just one month before he left office.

According to Thompson, though, there was no clear reason for the decision had Wooldridge looked into it. Although hundreds of account holders attended consultation sessions in the spring of 2000 and demanded a full accounting of their funds, their wishes were ignored, he testified.

He also said that his own opinions and those of two highly experienced trust officials -- Dick Fitzgerald and John Miller of the Office of the Special Trustee, who both have extensive backgrounds in banking -- have been repeatedly tossed aside by top officials and government attorneys who favored a restricted accounting. And while the statistical sampling was eventually dropped, Thompson's testimony about the infighting lead Lamberth yesterday to express an eagerness to hear how Norton would defend herself.

"We'll figure out when we find out whether she read my order," he said. "She can testify whether she read my order."

Starting today, Norton will be holding consultation sessions to discuss a proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lamberth, however, has barred certain government attorneys from working on the matter because they may be cited for contempt.

Some of the attorneys who participated in the spring of 2000 process are still employed by the Interior. Norton's involvement and that of Solicitor Bill Myers are not affected by Lamberth's temporary order.

Meanwhile, testimony continues in the contempt trial. Thompson is scheduled to take the stand again to start reviewing the second court monitor report which covers the dismal state of the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton must end the Indian Trust sham (12/13)

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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