Judge threatens Norton with new contempt charge

Robert Taylor
2/22/02

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Interior Secretary Gale heard harsh criticism Feb. 20 from the federal judge conducting her contempt trial, as the offshoot of the trust fund scandal wrapped up testimony.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth focused his wrath on the failure of the Department of the Interior to ensure that Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust beneficiaries received their payments as scheduled. He attacked the department for providing "misleading information" to the court and failing to provide adequate IT security to trust data.

Norton and Deputy Interior Secretary J. Stephen Griles have publicly blamed delays in getting out the payments on Lamberth's court investigator Alan Balaran. This tactic drew a strongly worded verbal thrashing and a warning of further sanctions from the judge.

In an exclusive editorial in the current edition of ICT (page A5), Interior Secretary Gale Norton extends an olive branch to tribal leaders. In the editorial "American Indian Trust Reform: The Challenge to Consensus" she explains her position and potential ways of correcting the shambles of the IIM fiasco.

Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb already are facing five earlier counts of contempt from the trust scandal case.

"There is strong evidence that defendants, yet again, have attempted to perpetrate a fraud on this court," said official court documents filed by lawyers for Elouise Cobell, plaintiff in the trust fund suit.

The latest criticisms stem from a Nov. 17, 2001 memorandum from Joe Walker, a former BIA superintendent involved with trust records, as detailed in official court records. Walker's memorandum allegedly contained "thinly veiled" language suggesting Interior's defense lawyers file a motion for summary judgement, thereby ending the trial. In turn, a GAO letter that contained evidence of acknowledgements of mismanagement would be suppressed.

Sandra Spooner of the Department of Justice reported to Lamberth that a total of $5 million in IIM disbursements had been made to bring the government into compliance with early court orders to get the money flowing again. She also admitted that $ 4.5 million in resource royalties were tied up de to the shutdown of the computer network at the Mineral Management Service (MMS).

The MMS network was part of the DOI ordered shutdown that effectively stopped trust payments. Lamberth had previously had ordered the network re-opened long enough to make all the IIM payments on time.

The network was shut down after a court-hired hacker easily broke into the trust accounts.

Reports on the devastating effects of the loss of the trust payments are coming in from all over Indian Country. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and one of the last witness in the Norton trial, testified that Indian ranchers who are dependent on the payments are having their credit ruined. He explained to the court that collateral needed for tribal and Department of Agriculture loans to keep operations going, the IIM payments, are still not reaching those in need.

Hall testified that he had not received any of his personal IIM payments since December. He also detailed an individual case of one elder who could not travel to her distant medical treatments without her IIM payments.

Landowners on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho are equally as distressed. Attorney Paul EchoHawk, who, has been representing the tribes interests at the trust fund hearings, said many elders use their IIM entitlements as house payments.

"They're coming into the office asking us for help, and we're trying to hold back the tide of creditors, but it's getting more difficult," he said.

EchoHawk said the tribe had met with the Idaho congressional delegation. He said progress had been made on crime issues on the reservation, but that no headway was made on the payments.

"The tribes cannot rely on hollow promises and rumors while the members, and our elders in particular, continue to suffer," said EchoHawk.

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