WASHINGTON - The day after the Smithsonian Institution announced the hiring of one-time BIA chief Kevin Gover as the next director of the National Museum of the American Indian (a so-called unit museum of the Smithsonian), trust funds lawsuit lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell reeled off a tempestuous condemnation of his integrity, reputation and commitment to Indians.
''Kevin Gover was held in contempt of court in the class action lawsuit over the federal government's admitted mishandling of Indian trust accounts,'' Cobell stated in a Sept. 12 media release.
''Our case represents one of the most important instances in which the federal government has continued to abuse Native people and Mr. Gover played a key role in grossly managing the Individual Indian [Money] trust and failing to produce records in the lawsuit over what Congress has called 'the broken Indian Trust.'
''What this means is that the Smithsonian has hired someone to head this important museum who has literally thumbed his nose at Indian people - some of the poorest people in the nation. His guilt in this [contempt] case and that of his boss, [former] Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, was never challenged by the government.''
By Sept. 19, a week later, Cobell hadn't backed off, informing The Washington Post that Gover isn't well-respected in Indian country and that no ''adversary'' of any Indian interest should direct NMAI. Between airplane flights, business meetings and a time zone difference, Cobell was unable to be interviewed by Indian Country Today. But an associate said she remains furious, fuming and offended, while another said she didn't accept an invitation to join the NMAI board of trustees just so that she could play ''wooden Indian,'' speechless and impassive.
Meanwhile, Cobell's misgivings about the Smithsonian executive selection process that approved Gover's candidacy had gained a foothold among her fellow NMAI trustees. As part of that critique, Gover's qualifications to run any museum have been questioned; but the main target of criticism here is the Smithsonian itself. Elliott Levitas, an attorney with the firm of Kilpatrick Stockton, representing the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit over the IIM trust, said the lack of transparency in Smithsonian Institution conduct criticized in an Independent Review Committee report from last June was still evident in the selection process. ''I don't see the transparency that must occur if they want to restore the public trust,'' Levitas said.
As the former chairman of the board of a Washington-based museum, he added that trustee boards can't be dismissed as ''merely advisory.'' Congress intends for such boards to be consulted and to advise ''on all matters related to the administration, operation, maintenance and preservation'' of the Smithsonian Institution museums, he said. For that, trustee boards need information that was not forthcoming in this instance, he said. ''Instead, they totally ignored and disdained them.''
In response, Gover emphasized that he looks forward eagerly to the job of NMAI executive director, confident that he has the knowledge he needs to do the job and to win over his harshest critic - a clear reference to Cobell.
He can rely on others at NMAI for museum-specific expertise, he said. The gift he brings to the museum is an ability, developed over years as an attorney, highly placed government official, and now a law professor at Arizona State University, for conveying complex information to people who lack a prior understanding of it. He has conveyed complex Indian-specific information to clients, congressional members, government officials and students for decades now, and he will convey it to a wider public at NMAI, he said.
Of the contempt charges that set Cobell off, he said it's significant that they were filed against him in his capacity as a federal official. ''It wasn't as though I had gone out and deliberately tried not to produce these [trust] documents.''
Rather, he said, the lawsuit was filed against Interior and the BIA in 1996; he became the BIA head in 1997; and by 1998, with other lawsuits pending, no one had told him that producing the documents was going to be a problem. But when a court ruled it to be a problem - ''That's contempt of court. I accepted that responsibility.'' He wasn't about to fight the charges because he agrees the government has mismanaged the IIM trust, he said.
Worth noting, according to NMAI public affairs officer Eileen Maxwell, is that later federal officials who fought contempt charges in the case have been exonerated because a new judge in the case has voided the contempt charges. From her viewpoint, Gover has a guilty conviction on his record because he agreed with the plaintiffs who now lambaste him.
Gover found the Smithsonian search and selection process exceptionally thorough, having been through similar processes both as an administrator and a job applicant.
He acknowledges a blind spot or two in his past, never more so than after his BIA career ended and he went to work for the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. Only after signing on did he learn the firm represented Atkinson Trading Company in the Navajo case that is widely held to have diminished tribal sovereignty. ''Had I known that, my decision about where to work might have been different.''
Cobell's insinuation that Gover ''thumbed his nose at Indian people'' found poor support in Washington at least. More treasured here is Gover's September 2000 apology for the BIA's past record in Indian country - a performance at once magisterial and modest, moving and genuine, in the estimation of many who experienced it. It can be found online at video.google.com.
Gover had other defenders. Not each of them was willing to speak on the record, simply because they don't relish a sparring match with Cobell. But Greg Smith, a lawyer and lobbyist with Johnston & Associates in Washington, said he can't assess Cobell's concerns because he's not an expert on the Indian trust funds. But he has worked with Gover. ''I hold him in high regard. I can say that I've worked with him on complex problems that required a total commitment to Native rights. He combined integrity and intellectual rigor at an elite level on behalf of Indian country, and he brought that to the BIA'' - not a plum assignment in government service because of the perceived condition there of intractable problems and limited resources. Smith said Gover also articulated the concept of the BIA as an Indian trust possession, not simply a government agency; and the concept proves helpful in warding off the BIA's historical paternalistic attitude.
Bruce deGrazia, president of Global Homeland Security Advisors in Washington and an attorney and archaeologist by training, doesn't have a dog in the trust funds fight. He worked with Gover and the BIA as assistant deputy undersecretary of the Defense Department for environmental quality from 1997 to 2001. American Indian issues were among his responsibilities at Defense. ''I had professional encounters with Kevin Gover ... regular contacts in meetings because of my responsibility for Indian issues. ... I found him to be intelligent, a very personable guy, had his finger on the issues, was a good communicator of those issues. I think that his appointment ... is an excellent one.'' Gover's skills will serve him well as he addresses ''big-picture'' issues as opposed to daily detail, in deGrazia's view. If there had been a concern with his integrity, deGrazia said, ''We would have heard about it. And there wasn't a peep.''