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Contempt trial continues

WASHINGTON ? False reports to the judge in the Indian trust account case so alarmed the staff at Interior's Office of the Special Trustee that they refused to "verify" them.

This startling statement came to light in the second week of testimony in the contempt trial spin-off from the trust reform case of Cobell v. Norton. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb faced hours of testimony supporting the claims of Indian plaintiffs that the officials were in contempt of court and that efforts at trust reform were failing.

Thomas M. Thompson, Deputy Special Trustee in the Office of the Special Trustee, told the court that Norton and McCaleb filed false reports without the support of the Office of Special Trustee and ignored the court's orders to provide a full historical accounting of trust funds. Thompson told the court that he and Thomas Slonaker, the Special Trustee, stopped verifying the accuracy of quarterly reports that Norton submitted to the judge.

"I learned that the term 'verify' had legal significance, representing that certain actions had been taken," said Thompson. "Mr. Slonaker and I knew that that was not the case."

Thompson has taken the stand for the first two weeks of the trial. He also said that the Trust Asset Accounting Management System, or TAAMS, the $33 million trust data computer system that Interior said was working, never ran properly as far as he knew. Thompson said that senior Interior officials agreed in 1999 that they must inform Judge Royce Lamberth that the system was not working. He said he was shocked to find out that, according to a court report, the judge had never been informed.

The contents of five reports by Court Monitor Joseph Kieffer III have become the focus of testimony and the contempt charges against Norton and McCaleb. Kieffer's reports provide evidence that TAAMS has not worked and that quarterly reports filed by Interior and Norton with the court were false and misleading.

(News arrived just before press time that the government has dropped its objection to introducing the Kieffer reports as evidence, a move that would sharply speed up the trial.)

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Thompson said that he was not sure why the court was never informed about the problems with TAAMS or who had decided to keep the information from the judge.

"It may have been inadvertent or a bureaucratic blunder," Thompson said.

Following Thompson's revelations, Judge Lamberth demanded that government attorneys inform him whether Norton had reported problems with TAAMS in her Seventh Quarterly Report to the court. Thompson said his office, the Office of Special Trustee, refused to verify the accuracy of that report. In a court order just issued by Lamberth, Norton was directed to personally sign on to any future quarterly reports.

Norton had testified that trust reform and the new TAAMS system were a success. As recently as February of this year, Norton testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that TAAMS was a much needed automated system and that "much progress has been made."

Indian plaintiffs want Kieffer's reports entered as official evidence of contempt. Accepting the reports as evidence would speed up the trial, which has been slowed by a number of government challenges to Kieffer's findings and Thompson's testimony. Government attorneys are opposed to such an idea. Kieffer's reports form the foundation for the five contempt charges against Norton and McCaleb.

"They see that the reports make the case for contempt and a receivership," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "They don't want that as evidence."

With only one witness on the stand so far, Lamberth has indicated that he would like to speed up the pace of the trial. He said that he may supplement trial testimony with depositions supervised by Special Master Alan Balaran. The court will be in recess until Jan. 3, 2002.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, along with a group of other Indian plaintiffs, initiated a class-action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars in unreconciled Individual Indian Monies under the government's supervision since 1887. Attorneys for the government argue that the law is unclear before 1994 and that the government should be able to move forward with reforms without judicial oversight.