End in sight for Norton contempt trial
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's grueling contempt trial appears near an end with attorneys representing 300,000 American Indian trust beneficiaries ready to rest their case.

After having chugged through fourteen days of testimony, most of it confined to one senior government official, the attorneys on Thursday said their task is almost complete. Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund said the team's only remaining witness is Daryl White, the Department of Interior's top computer official.

"We've got so much in already," Harper told Indianz.Com.

That leaves the Norton's attorneys, led by Mark Nagle of the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., with the monumental job of presenting her defense. Faced with five contempt charges, Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb stand to be fined, sanctioned and potentially jailed for actions that occurred not just under their watch but during the Clinton administration.

Just how the pair plan to escape the charges is a big question, as the government's strategy has largely been a secret. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who called the trial in late November, has been openly curious about the Interior's next move and, on one occasion, said he wanted to hear from Norton personally.

Whether Lamberth will get a chance to do that is another unknown. Government attorneys may not call Norton or McCaleb to the stand; previously they have said some Interior employees and a third-party contractor handling a failing trust reform project are on their short list.

But just because the plaintiffs have trimmed their witnesses down from an initial 30 or so to just three doesn't mean a resolution will come soon. Lamberth said he is leaving the country from January 16-30, so a ruling on the charges won't occur until sometime in February, depending on how long the government takes to mount a defense.

By then, the Interior will have hosted the remaining scheduled consultations on a proposal to create a new Indian trust agency. Norton offered the controversial and roundly rejected plan in mid-November, saying it was a step in the right direction and would answer Lamberth's lingering accountability questions.

Meetings are set for South Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, D.C., and Oregon. Dates for sessions in Montana and Arizona have not been confirmed but officials said they will occur in mid- to late-February.

Also in February, two Congressional committees will be holding oversight hearings on trust reform. The House Resources Committee has scheduled testimony February 6, while the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hasn't publicly announced a date.

In the end, though, it will be Lamberth's contempt finding and his decision on a request to put the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust into receivership that will speak the loudest, according to the account holders and tribes. Tribal leaders are banking on sanctions and a receiver to deal the final blow to the proposed Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), and to give them more time to to develop their own alternative.

Daryl White, who has been the Interior's chief information officer since May 1998, will take the stand this morning. The only other witnesses have been Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, the top trust official, and his aide Tommy Thompson.

Slonaker's testimony concluded yesterday, totaling two days. Thompson was called on December 10 and didn't wrap up until Monday.

Both provided evidence on their serious concerns regarding the progress of trust reform. They also supported findings by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, whose reports were challenged by Norton before she decided to drop her objections.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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