Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) made news at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing September 24 when he announced he could not support Keith Harper’s nomination to become a U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Harper is a lawyer with Kilpatrick Stockton and a Cherokee Nation citizen, and played an integral role in settling the Cobell lawsuit with the Obama administration for $3.4 billion. He also raised over $500,000 for the Obama presidential campaign in 2012.
McCain read from a letter from January 2012 released by the Cobell counsel that included the names and addresses of four Native American class members who were appealing the settlement. The letter encouraged class members to contact the appellants. “You’re talking about human rights here,” McCain admonished Harper during the hearing, asking him why he never publicly spoke out against that letter. “I think these four people’s human rights were abused.”
Harper testified in response that he and his firm had nothing to do with the letter, and that it was only posted online, not e-mailed to Cobell class members. He laid full responsibility on his co-counsel, Dennis Gingold, for writing the letter and promoting it. After the hearing, Gingold said that characterization was “puzzling,” but would not offer further comment.
It was difficult for Kimberly Craven, one of the American Indian appellants, to watch the video of the hearing online. She, like the three other Indians highlighted in it, had faced some very real emotional scars as a result of the letter, and it was tough to re-experience them all over again.
"I'm one of the four people on that letter by the Cobell Counsel," the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate citizen wrote on Facebook soon after the hearing. "Since it was sent out to the Cobell settlement list server and posted online, I have been threatened at my work and home. I have gone to the local police when I was scared by someone who said they knew where I lived."
Craven was disturbed that Harper testified during the hearing that the letter was only posted online and quickly removed from the website managed by the Cobell counsel. McCain’s staff noted after the hearing that the letter was still posted on the site, which is currently run by the Cobell counsel, and the Cobell counsel hasn’t included Gingold since last December.
Craven says that she, as a member of the Cobell class, received the letter via e-mail on Friday, January 20 at 1:12 p.m. She provided the e-mail to Indian Country Today Media Network for verification. “How many people do you suppose they had on their list at that point in time?” she asked, noting that the Cobell counsel indicated there were 500,000 class members.
Craven’s story of harassment is similar to that of the four Indians who appealed the settlement. Carol Good Bear told part of her story to the Associated Press in early 2012, saying that she had received several harassing calls. "To put my name out there for the public, I think that's scary that these attorneys would use this tactic and intimidate me into dropping my appeal," she said. "I don't have protection. If somebody is upset about all this and comes at me with a gun, what am I supposed to do?" Mary Lee Johns, another of the Indian appellants, was quoted in the same article, saying she couldn’t be “browbeaten into quitting.”
Charles Colombe, former Rosebud Sioux president, the fourth Indian appellant, passed away in June. According to people close to him, he had been planning before his passing to take legal action as a result of the letter.
These emotional issues stemming from the letter have McCain and other members of Congress concerned about Harper’s nomination. “Senator McCain is unconvinced that Mr. Harper is as ignorant as he claims to be regarding the controversial 'Ask Elouise' letter, which appears designed to harass tribal members for simply exercising their rights to due process,” Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain told ICTMN. McCain is seeking clarification on several issues related to Harper’s treatment of Indians related to Cobell case.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also investigating. “Sen. Barrasso is going to take a close look at Mr. Harper's record and determine whether or not he is the best person to serve on the U.N. Human Rights Council,” said Emily Lawrimore, his spokeswoman. “He believes that this council must be staffed with people who have good judgment, the highest level of integrity and a commitment to improving human rights at home and abroad.”
McCain and Barrasso are also investigating claims beyond the letter by tribal leaders involving Harper and his firm.