WASHINGTON - On Nov. 21, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal A. McCaleb, 67, announced his decision to retire from public service, informing President George W. Bush and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton of his plans to leave his current post. McCaleb, whose 17 months as the Bush administration's top official for Indian programs were marred by controversy over management of Indian trust funds, has given notice of his intent to retire at the end of the year.
"After a long period of prayerful deliberation I have decided the time is right to bring my public service career to a close," said McCaleb in a statement announcing his decision. "I began my campaign to build real and lasting economic opportunities for American Indian people as far back as 1967 as a member of Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. In my current position, I have been disappointed to learn that a contentious and litigious environment obscures the hard work that remains before us. The pathway to improve the quality of life for America's Native people is to create strong economics. We must look to the future by creating new opportunities for Indian-owned businesses and building new markets for their products and services."
During his tenure as assistant secretary for Indian affairs, McCaleb's efforts were focused on untangling a troubled trust fund for Indian royalties that has been mismanaged for more than a century.
In September, he and Norton were held in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth for failing to comply with Lamberth's order to fix the trust fund -- which manages $500 million a year in oil, gas, mining and timber royalties from Indian lands -- and concealing their failure to do so.
"The constraints imposed by ever-present litigation have taken their toll," McCaleb said. "Unfortunately, it [the litigation] has taken first priority in too many activities, thus distracting attention from the other important goals that could provide more long-term benefits for Indian country. Economic development for American Indians and Alaska Natives deserve full-time attention which is not realistic in the current environment."
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton accepted McCaleb's resignation, and released her own public statement, portions of which appear below:
"It is with great reluctance, deep regret and a sense of personal loss that I accept the retirement of Neal McCaleb, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
"Neal serves as an extremely valuable member of my leadership team, and he will be very difficult to replace. He is a cherished asset who played a pivotal role inachieving some of our significant goals. Thanks to his expertise, leadership and personal drive, we have made significant accomplishments for which he deserves great credit.
"Neal McCaleb -- the businessman, private citizen and member of a state legislature and a Governor's cabinet -- aimed high and kept his focus on bringing real economic development to Indian country. As a member of my team, he never wavered in his loyalty to the principles, needs and goals of American Indians, Alaska Natives and this administration.
"Neal has my personal thanks and admiration for all of his hard work and service to this great country. I accept his decision for retirement with regret and a sense of understanding."
McCaleb's resignation surprised many in Indian country. Nedra Darling, spokesperson for the BIA, confirmed that McCaleb was reacting to the pressure of the Cobell litigation but added that he wanted to spend more time with his family. She said he would continue to work full-time through December 31, 2002.
No word was available on the search for his successor.