Skip to main content

Indian Lawyers Allege Threats by Human Rights Nominee Keith Harper

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.

Soon after this second confrontation, the Obama administration cut off federal funding for ITMA, which Russell and ITMA members suspect had something to do with Harper, who has served as a transition team member for the administration, has sat on a presidential commission, and who was a major bundler for the Obama campaigns.

ITMA had been federally funded for much of its two-decades existence before the second Harper incident with Russell, and tribal advocates familiar with the work of the organization say it would have been a useful entity to continue funding, especially given the tribal components of the Cobell settlement and ongoing trust concerns involving the Department of the Interior, which the administration says it is intent on fixing.

Russell says she is going public with the confrontations now because “this kind of behavior should not be rewarded with a human rights ambassadorship.”

Richard Monette, a law professor with the University of Wisconsin and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, last week detailed in an article published by Indian Country Today Media Network an alleged physical attack by Harper in 2010 when Harper pushed him in a hallway at the D.C. District Court.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

RELATED: Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination

“I brought one of the old class-action gurus to the Cobell courtroom one day as I was getting ready to testify about my problems with the settlement,” Monette said. “We were walking together down the hallway at the court, and Keith Harper gets in front of us and stops. And Keith shoved me—and I mean hard. He did it on purpose to try to provoke. It really, really threw me because it was just before I was scheduled to testify.”

Paul Kamenar, the class-action lawyer who was with Monette at the time of the incident, said he was not in sight range to see exactly what happened, adding “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. But Richard is a very honest and forthright person, so I don’t have any reason to doubt him.”

Monette has since said that there is “no doubt” that the incident occurred, adding that there were other people who saw the incident, but to date no other witnesses have come forward to support his claim.

Harper has not responded to requests for comment on the Monette allegation, and John Page, the spokesman for Kilpatrick Stockton, declined to comment on the Monette allegation. Both gentlemen have not responded to requests for comment on the Russell allegations. Page has said in the past that Harper is not allowed to comment on any matters during his nomination process.

A long-time associate and friend of Harper, who asked to remain anonymous because this person doesn’t want to get drawn into the conflict, says Harper has a strong personality, which can be a positive quality when he is representing clients in court. “I’ve known Keith forever,” says this person. “He tends to take things personally, which can be useful in court. Sometimes, outside of court, it isn’t so useful.”

Native Americans who have sent letters of support for Harper to the Senate and supported him publicly include Billy Frank, an Indian activist and environmentalist; Jefferson Keel, former president of the National Congress of American Indians; Mary Smith, president of the National Native American Bar Association; Terry Rambler, president of the Intertribal Council of Arizona; Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation; Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, of which Harper is a citizen; Buford Rolin, chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians; and other tribal and Native organization leaders, according to the Department of State, which has gathered and submitted the letters of support to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Everyone knows about Keith’s work on the Cobell trust case of course, but not a lot of people know about all of the other ways he’s advocated on behalf of Indian country,” Frank wrote in his support letter, distributed by the State Department. “He’s helped the Native American Church, tribes with treaty claims, impoverished tribes seeking federal recognition, tribes enforcing water rights and he’s worked on protecting tribal natural resources.”

While there is no doubt that Harper is supported by some powerful Native leaders and lobbyists who have had positive interactions with him, the lawyers’ allegations of intimidation come on top of concerns expressed by several indigenous rights advocates about Harper’s lack of attention to their human rights issues over a number of years and his firm’s defense of some controversial tribal human rights and sacred site infringements.

RELATED: Sacred Site Advocates Ask Senate to Heed Keith Harper Concerns

Bullying by the Cobell legal team was common during the settlement proceedings, according to several people familiar with the case who say that David Harrison, an Osage citizen and lawyer based in New Mexico who represented three of the Native Americans who appealed the Cobell settlement, was verbally disparaged in an unprofessional manner by Dennis Gingold, Harper’s co-counsel in the Cobell litigation. Gingold said by e-mail that his concerns regarding Harrison were professional in nature. “All of my comments reflected the court’s findings and conclusions regarding the nature and quality of Mr. Harrison's work, which are not flattering,” Gingold said. “In my opinion, what Mr. Harrison did is unconscionable and inexcusable and his briefs are among the worst appellate briefs that I have ever reviewed. I could have revealed a lot more about Mr. Harrison's situation, including the identification of the lawyer who provided assistance and counsel to Mr. Harrison in his effort to set aside the Cobell settlement against the explicit wishes of certain of her clients, but I did not do so. I could also have revealed the outrageous demands of his clients, but did not do so. And, I don't plan to do so now.” Gingold further said he never called Harrison a name that is frequently used to disparage Indians, although sources disagree with him on that.

Gingold has also defended the Cobell team’s distribution and posting of a letter in 2010 that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) has noted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee caused harassment of the four Native Americans who appealed the settlement. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has relied on Gingold as a character witness to vouch for Harper during the nomination process. Harper’s nomination passed out of the committee on a party line vote on February 4, leaving the full Senate to decide whether he will be confirmed. 

“Everybody has been really nervous about speaking out,” Russell says, noting that Harper has some powerful allies who are supporting his nomination. “We are really concerned that Keith will try to do something, like go after our clients, or harm us in some other way. I’m really going out on a limb here, because I don’t know what kind of retaliation Keith will take.”