Judge sets stage for Norton's 'worst nightmare'
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Rejecting an attempt to delay the case for another month, a federal judge on Friday scheduled a wide open contempt trial to address Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's handling of the severely mismanaged trust assets belonging to an estimated 300,000 American Indians.

While giving Norton "some credit" for allowing him to gain a better understanding of failing attempts to fix the broken system, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth criticized her defense team for seeking to postpone the case until January 7. The government has had a month to prepare for a possible trial, he said, referring to a October hearing during which he hinted he would start proceedings.

But rather than heed the warning and throw herself "on the mercy of the court," Norton has declared war, said Lamberth. She is challenging the reports and findings of two court-appointed watchdogs, he said, including one she welcomed into her department earlier this year.

"The Secretary has decided to contest everything and to throw down the gauntlet," said Lamberth at the start of the one-hour hearing held in federal court in Washington, D.C.

Norton has also expressed conflicting positions on trust reform, Lamberth said. In one court filing, he pointed out, she defended a status update her top trust fund official refused to verify and which court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III called "untruthful, inaccurate and incomplete."

Yet several days later, Norton submitted a report prepared by EDS Corporation to the tune of nearly $3 million that contradicted the veracity of her filing, Lamberth noted. "She tells me one thing," he said, but EDS "is saying the opposite."

"The Secretary tells me both things that are totally inconsistent," he continued. "Did she lie to me the first time or the second time?"

Hoping to answer these and other questions, Lamberth refused to halt contempt proceedings despite protests from Norton's defense team. Mark Nagle, chief of the U.S Attorney's civil division in Washington, D,C., said the government should be allowed to question Kieffer's highly critical reports because of a "fundamental question of due process."

After several rounds of heated questioning, Lamberth gave in to the request, noting possible appeals from the government. But he noted that this strategy may soon prove to be Norton's undoing, as it has now set into motion an even more complicated, and embarrassing, trial than the government may want.

"I can give them their worst nightmare," he said, scheduling a trial to start December 10 at 10 a.m..

Attorneys representing the Indian beneficiaries were extremely pleased with Lamberth's actions. "We've been prepared for this for a long time," said Dennis Gingold.

Despite the confidence, a number of details still remain up in the air, added Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund. Both he and Gingold have been solidifying their list of witnesses which they said would include Norton, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover.

Harper also said Tex Hall, the newly elected president of the National Congress of American Indians, has agreed to testify. Hall has been a chief critic of Norton's handling of the case, which culminated in his organization's decision to reject her plan to overhaul the tribal and individual trust system.

"I think we want to show that Indian Country is united on these issues," said Harper.

During the hearing, Craig Lawrence, an assistant U.S. Attorney, said the government has few witnesses beyond the ones sought by the plaintiffs. A couple of Department of Interior employees and private contractors handling data cleanup, a reform project behind schedule, would be called, he said.

With contempt proceedings in place, Lamberth said he will soon decide whether to appoint a judicially-supervised caretaker for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. A receiver is all but guaranteed should Lamberth sanction Norton at the conclusion of a contempt trial, said Gingold.

Norton did not personally appear before Lamberth on Friday, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who has said he is in charge of trust reform, was among several Interior representatives in attendance.

A spokesperson said Norton would comply with Lamberth's orders, including any request to take the stand in her own defense.

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

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