Judge refuses Norton challenge to contempt charge
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A federal judge on Friday refused to drop a contempt charge against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton for her handling of the trust fund, ending a day of heated negotiations that have resulted in the delay of critical funds to tribes and individual Indians.

General assistance and other payments were set to go out to Indian Country when the federal government and attorneys representing 300,000 American Indian beneficiaries came to an agreement over the security of the Department of Interior's computer systems. A consent order the parties signed would have allowed the Interior to send checks to thousands of Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders, said Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker.

"At the moment, Interior is sitting on 43,000 checks that a lot of people in Indian Country were counting on at this time of year," said Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against the government.

But the agreement was withdrawn after government attorneys said it proved Norton shouldn't face sanctions for the Interior's numerous network vulnerabilities. Those problems, uncovered by court-hired hackers, led U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to add an additional contempt charge against the department.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Nagle, chief of the civil division in Washington, D.C., said the agreement "moots out" the charge. He said the payment of at least $300,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs showed that Norton didn't deserve punishment.

According to Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the beneficiaries, the consent decree didn't even begin to address the failures of the Interior to protect his client's assets. "It doesn't resolve the fraud that's been practiced," he said.

Gingold added that the purpose of the agreement was to get checks out to Indian Country under court supervision. Nevertheless, his team agreed to drop their claim to the fees -- an offer refused by the government.

Subsequently, Lamberth accepted the withdrawal of the computer agreement, putting the tribal and individual payments at risk from being made on time this Christmas season. Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason was tasked with reconnecting systems such as the Integrated Records Management System (IRMS), a legacy system that handles IIM accounts, according to Chris Kohn, one of Nagle's colleagues.

The Department of Interior did not return numerous requests for comment about the dropped order. However, some Bureau of Indian Affairs regional officials said they were told not to expect payments as long as the pertinent systems were down, an attitude Gingold characterized as despicable.

"We think there is no good trustee in the world that wouldn't make sure, whatever they had to do, that the checks go out to their trust beneficiaries, especially when those trust beneficiaries desperately need the money," he said.

"It is okay that the payroll checks went out to the employees of the Department of Interior on Tuesday or whenever they went out, but it's not okay if the trust beneficiaries' checks go out," he added.

On Saturday evening, the plaintiffs attorneys submitted a preliminary injunction that would order the Interior to disburse payments. Lamberth today will hear arguments on the motion.

Lamberth will also hear continued testimony with witness Tommy Thompson, a senior trust official. Thompson spent the last week confirming a number of damaging findings uncovered by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, a court appointed officer who began investigated the Interior in April.

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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