Norton: Cobell plaintiffs oppose reform
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Holding Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in contempt of court will only allow "opponents" to derail trust reform and prevent the broken system from ever being fixed, her attorneys are arguing.

According to a document filed in federal court last week, the Bush administration has made "progress" in the last year to management of the funds held in trust for 300,000 American Indians. Plans to conduct an historical accounting as far back as 1938, reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and efforts to improve computer security are among the improvements cited.

"Trust reform and accounting are benefitting from the infusion of new ideas, bigger budgets, more staffing, and greater awareness of the root problems," the attorneys wrote. "And this progress has occurred during a time when certain key departmental personnel have been obliged to step aside as a consequence of plaintiffs' motions for contempt."

But everything is placed in jeopardy if U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth decides to sanction Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb for their handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., claims. Without mentioning by name, but clearly pointing to the plaintiffs in the Cobell class action, the legal team says they are to blame for years of inaction.

"[O]pponents of reform will redouble their efforts to muster tribal, congressional and public opposition to reform of the trust, as they have during both previous and current administrations," the government writes.

Contained in a lengthy document aimed at staving off fines and potential jail time, the charges are the harshest leveled at the Cobell plaintiffs to date by the Bush administration. Prior submissions have focused largely on Norton's recent actions as a defense in the long-running case.

With the plaintiffs seeking a receiver to take over the trust, the stakes have grown higher. The situation is reflected in the latest filing, which paints Norton as the sole savior who will be crippled if found in contempt.

"It is the Secretary who must obtain funds from Congress; who must engage Congress, the Tribes and other interested parties in constructive dialogue on the reorganization of trust management; who must spearhead the effort to attract qualified staff to the Department; and who, ultimately, must provide leadership to those already engaged in vital trust reform efforts," her attorneys claim.

"All of these functions would inevitably be compromised severely by a contempt finding," they say.

In the document, the government lays out its defense on the five charges facing Norton and McCaleb. They include a failure to account for the funds owed to Indian beneficiaries, false and misleading reporting on the progress of trust reform and lack of information technology security measures.

On the accounting charge, government attorneys admit little movement since the lawsuit started more than five years ago. But they claim the Department of Interior was never specifically ordered to provide an accounting.

At the same time, they cite Norton's decision to scrap the Clinton administration's position on how far back to look for trust documents and the creation of the Office of Historical Trust Accounting as a "substantial efforts." Headed by a former Clinton administration official, the office is set to release its plan in June.

As for the reporting charges, the defense team agrees the quarterly status updates have not been "effective." However, the attorneys say the Norton has "overhauled and improved" the process and has hired EDS Corporation to "review thoroughly, critically and independently the status of trust reform."

And while the department is declining to release details about Ross Swimmer's work, the attorneys say his Office of Indian Trust Transition has been "staffed." Department officials say they can't release information due to privacy and personnel issues.

The government also claims information technology security problems have never been hidden from the court. Even though issues were raised nearly two years ago, the government says it is finally moving to correct known deficiencies.

Related Documents:
Norton's Proposed Findings | Cobell's Proposed Findings

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

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