WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a decision dripping with years of frustration, the federal judge hearing the Indian Trust Fund class action suit found Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb guilty of contempt of court.
The ruling, in a spin-off from the main case, found the two officials had "committed a fraud upon the court" on five issues central to resolving the Trust Fund debacle involving massive funds, possibly as much as $10 billion, owed to at least 300,000 individual Indian trust account holders and further sums owed to tribes.
"The department has now undeniably shown that it can no longer be trusted to state accurately the status of its trust reform efforts. In short, there is no longer any doubt that the Secretary of Interior has been and continues to be an unfit trustee-delegate for the United States," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth.
Norton did have some defenders. U. S. Rep. J. D. Hayworth, R.?Ariz., co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, praised Norton's "extraordinary attention" to the 115-year -old problem and called the ruling "misdirected, unfair and untimely." (The text of Hayworth's statement appears below.)
The case has been before Judge Lamberth in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 1999, and he previously issued contempt orders against Clinton Administration officials Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior, and Kevin Gover, his Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
The decision leaves open the question of future control of the trust accounts. Rather than put them into receivership, as class-action plaintiff Elouise Cobell has requested, for now Judge Lamberth promoted court monitor, Joseph S. Kieffer III, to the role of special master-monitor with added powers to enforce court orders. Kieffer, who has been court monitor since April 2001, issuing scathing reports on Interior's progress and for coming under fire from Norton's attorneys, who called for his removal.
Press Release issued by U. S. Rep. J. D. Hayworth, R. - Ariz. On Judge Lamberth's contempt ruling:
SCOTTSDALE, AZ ? U.S. Rep. J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and a member of the House Resources Committee, issued the following statement today in reaction to the announcement that U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth has deemed Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton to be in contempt for failure to resolve a 115-year-old dispute involving Indian trust funds:
"I share Judge Lamberth's desire for a prompt resolution to the Indian trust fund scandal, but I believe his decision to hold Secretary Norton in contempt is misdirected, unfair, and untimely. It is tantamount to having someone condemn all the progress and hard work by Dr. Jonas Salk days before his historic breakthrough against polio.
"To subject Secretary Norton to this sort of judicial jawboning is unnecessary. She fully appreciates the urgency of solving this problem. Unlike some of her predecessors, she takes the court's consternation very seriously and she is devoting extraordinary attention, including spending 50 percent of every day working with tribal leaders and others, to resolve the problem, and she is making very significant progress toward that goal.
"On days like this, it's important to note that the mishandling of Indian trust funds dates back two centuries; Secretary Norton has been in office less than two years. She deserves commendation, not contempt, for the commitment and energy she has brought to bear on this problem and for the real results she has achieved."