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Destruction of e-mail continues in Cobell

WASHINGTON ? After continuing accusations of misconduct and motions for contempt, the federal government is again being questioned about destruction of documents relevant to the ongoing case over billions of dollars in individual American Indian trust funds.

The questions focus on the loss of backup tapes which contain e-mails of employees working with trust assets.

Alan Balaran, an attorney and special investigator appointed by the judge in the case, is now inquiring with Justice Department attorneys about the lost e-mail archives. Specific e-mails mentioned include those of an employee named James Douglas. It is in some of his e-mails that the government admits 'some overwriting of backup tapes may have occurred in recent months ... .'

Balaran, appointed to investigate records held by the federal government which have been found missing or destroyed, is looking into whether the tapes were purposely destroyed or destroyed because of negligence.

'I am naturally concerned about the circumstances which led to the deletion of Mr. Douglas' archive e-mail folder, especially in light of the recent revelations that the Office of the Solicitor engaged in a policy of overwriting e-mail backup tapes in derogation of court orders,' Balaran said.

Earlier this year, Balaran had issued a report to the judge which accused the Department of Interior of violating a federal judge's order by erasing e-mails. In his opinion, destruction of the tapes began in June 1998, when the court ordered the tapes preserved, and lasted until November 2000. In his report he also said Justice attorneys stalled by arguing repeatedly in court that the department was preserving the evidence.

Balaran said in his opinion, the American Indian plaintiffs in Cobell vs. Norton should be reimbursed for the cost of litigating the e-mail issue because of the government's conduct, calling Interior's attempts to limit its obligations 'inappropriate.'

Stephanie Hanna, an Interior spokeswoman, denied that the department knowingly erased the tapes, saying, 'we have made every effort to retain important e-mails and documents.'

Balaran has cited the departments of Interior and Treasury in the past for violating court orders. Attorneys for the government have argued that the law is unclear before 1994 and that the government should be able to move forward with reforms without judicial oversight.

American Indian plaintiffs initiated the class-action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars in unreconciled tribal trust funds and Individual Indian Monies. Earlier in the case, Interior attorneys claimed they could not comply with a court order to produce documents because they were covered in mouse droppings and in a state of disarray.

Balaran has been corresponding with Justice attorneys for the past month regarding the backup tapes and set a deadline of Sept. 7 for all information about the deleted e-mails.