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Interior's contempt confirms government double standard

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Secretary of Interior Gail Norton and Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb were convicted of civil contempt in U.S. District Court on Sept.17. Both were found to have committed fraud by withholding evidence in a federal court case involving the Interior Department's gross mismanagement of Indian Trust Accounts.

Indian trusts began in 1887, when 90 million acres of land were taken from Indians for settlers. In exchange, Indians were given 40 to 320 acre land allotments. Royalties from grazing, timber, oil and gas drilling on those lands were held in trust for Indians by the Interior Department.

A decade ago, Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana requested an audit of all Indian Trust accounts managed by the Interior Department. Over several years, the agency was unwilling or unable to grant her request. As a result, Cobell brought suit against the department in 1996.

Three years after Cobell's case began, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth found then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover in contempt for failing to produce adequate records involving 300,000 individual Indian trust accounts. Lamberth fined them $600,000, which U.S. taxpayers paid; none served jail time and all three completed their terms under the Clinton Administration without being reprimanded, demoted or fired.

Unfortunately, despite having a new president, not much changed regarding the government's prolonged avoidance and delay tactics involving Indian Trust matters. Like Clinton, George Bush appears unwilling to hold his appointees to their fiduciary responsibilities or compel them to obey court orders.

As it stands, Norton and McCaleb both face possible fines and jail time for their contempt conviction. Will it compel them to abide by court demands for accountability and fix the Indian Trust problem? Not likely. Norton knows from her predecessor's experience that Judge Lamberth's "punishment" for disobeying his orders are more bark than bite.

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Clearly a double standard exists within the federal government. After all, had a private company been assigned to oversee the Indian's Trust Accounts and failed to the same extent as the Interior Department, the federal government would likely have acted expeditiously. The company would be shut down and its executives hauled into court in handcuffs. Senate hearings would likely commence and CNN would be covering it "live." The president would stand before the media with thumbs in the air and declare that he is "reeling in corporate wrongdoers." God bless America!

But, because it is a federal agency that failed in this duty, the past (Democrat) and sitting (Republican) president both appear unwilling to hold their political appointees accountable.

Isn't it hypocritical to ignore fiscal wrongdoings by federal employees in regards to Indians, while steadfastly prosecuting corporate heads of Enron, Anderson, Worldcom, etc., for related offenses involving shareholders? Moral, ethical and legal standards regarding fiduciary responsibilities should apply equally whether an individual is a federal employee or head of a private sector corporation.

Equally disturbing is that the U.S. District Court seems unwilling to issue orders that will produce results in this drawn-out case. In his recent decision, Judge Lamberth granted the Interior Department another chance to divulge the extent of the mismanaged accounts that are presumably between $10 to $40 billion.

Rather than facilitate the Interior's foot-dragging, why doesn't the judge simply fine the Interior Department the amount equal to the cost of a private company assuming management of these accounts and the amount needed to repay Native Americans for their loses? That action has the potential to bankrupt the Interior Department, but that may be exactly what is needed to get responsible action from the president and Congress and obtain just resolution in the Indian matter.

The central issue in this fiasco is Trust. It is clear that the federal government failed that test with America's first peoples even while expecting American corporate executives to toe the ethical and legal line regarding shareholder finances. Collectively, this case speaks volumes about the lack of "good faith" commitment of our cabinet-level government employees and makes a mockery of Bush's call for corporate accountability.

Gary Moore, Alaska Native, is a political freelance columnist living in Fairbanks, Alaska. He has written on Native and government issues over the last 15 years. He was a regular contributing columnist for over two years at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. He currently writes for the Anchorage Chronicle. He can be reached at 907-460-5448 (cell) or 907-456-5134 (office).