Indian Lawyers Allege Threats by Human Rights Nominee Keith Harper
Keith Harper, a presidential nominee to become a human rights ambassador to the United Nations, is being called out by Native American lawyers for alleged intimidation tactics. These lawyers, who have had disagreements with him over the Cobell litigation, say they are speaking out to shed light on his character before the full Senate considers whether to confirm him.
“I’ve had two confrontations with Keith Harper, and during the first confrontation somebody actually had to come and get in between us to stop him from haranguing on me,” says Majel Russell, a Montana-based Indian affairs lawyer with Elk River Law Office. The confrontation, she says, took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2005 at a meeting of the Intertribal Trust Monitoring Association (ITMA), a client of Russell’s at that time.
Russell gave a presentation at the meeting regarding accounting issues involved with the then-ongoing Cobell lawsuit. “When I finished my presentation and went outside, Keith followed me,” Russell says. “And he was horrible. He called me a liar, he told me I didn’t know anything about trust lands, and he was very attacking, right up in my face.”
A witness who saw part of the incident was “shocked” by Harper’s behavior. “He flipped out,” says the witness, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this situation. “He was physically threatening Majel. It was scary. His body language was in her face; he was yelling in her face, calling her a bitch.”
Another witness who asked to remain anonymous says, “He was yelling at her and cussing at her—it wasn’t like two people were standing arguing. People thought he was going to hit her. He was very, very angry and got right up in her face.”
“I was stunned,” Russell says. “I was absolutely shocked that he would follow me and just start railing on me. I was pretty spooked, but I’m an old reservation girl, so I told him that I know what I’m talking about, that I have trust land [and] have been monitoring this situation for years.”
Russell says that Harper told her during this confrontation that the Cobell legal team would seek retribution against people who offered opinions different than the team’s legal arguments involving the Cobell case. “He told me to remember that I shouldn’t be a class buster—‘We will deal with class busters,’ he told me,” she says.
After a different presentation by Russell at another meeting of ITMA in 2010 held in Las Vegas, Harper again challenged her with a threat, she says. “He confronted me in a hallway and threatened to tell a tribe that I had not represented them well in a previous trust settlement,” she says.
Russell, a citizen of the Crow Tribe, says Harper’s words after this second confrontation rattled her, even though she felt she had properly fulfilled her professional duties to both the tribe and to ITMA. “I realized he wanted retribution,” she says. A person who witnessed the end of the discussion and who talked to Russell immediately after it confirms her story.
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