WASHINGTON, D.C. ? A federal judge has order Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb to stand trial for contempt of court in the case of Cobell vs. Norton.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth cited a variety of reasons why Norton and McCaleb are being asked to stand trial, including failing to reform management of individual Indian trust accounts as ordered by the court, lying about reform progress, and misleading the court about their misconduct. The trial begins on December 3.
In the order filed by Lamberth, Norton and McCaleb were asked to answer why they violated a December 1999 court order to fix the trust problem and provide an historical accounting.
He also accused them of lying to the court about their progress on trust reform, citing a false report filed by Norton just a few months ago. Attempts to hide the true problems with TAAMS, a computer system used by the government to handle trust account data, was also mention by Lamberth as another reason for possible contempt charges.
'Here we go again.
'It is unbelievable that Norton and McCaleb wouldn't have learned their lesson from Babbitt and Rubin. This is proof positive that the IIM trust must be taken away from Interior and placed in the hands of a receiver before true trust reform will ever have a chance,' lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell said.
In December 1999, Judge Lamberth ruled the Indian plaintiffs had a judicially enforceable right to an accounting of their money and that the secretaries of Interior and Treasury were in breach of their trust responsibilities to Indian account beneficiaries.
Lamberth also found former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in contempt for failing to comply in a full and timely manner with an earlier discovery order in the case. Attorneys for Interior claimed they could not produce documents because they were covered in mouse droppings and in a state of disarray.
Lamberth stated in the order that his decision was based on a number of critical reports filed by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III. Kieffer was appointed by Lamberth to monitor government progress in trust reform and file written reports of his findings. In Kieffer's reports he said the federal government failed in its plan to resolve the trust funds problem and intentionally misled the court and Indian beneficiaries.
Dennis Gingold, plaintiffs' attorney, praised Lamberth's decision to hold a trial.
'It confirms everything we've said about the unfitness of the Secretary of Interior to continue to manage the Indian trust.''
Norton and McCaleb are two of approximately 50 Interior and Justice officials and attorneys cited by the Cobell plaintiffs for potential contempt charges. However, Judge Lamberth said he was deferring action on all others until a later date.
Interior spokesman Eric Ruff said strides have been taken to improve management of the trust fund and comply with court orders since Norton took office, including the creation of a new office specifically dedicated to trust fund management.
'Such progress is evidence of the department's commitment and determination to resolve the Indian trust issue,' Ruff said in a statement.
In recent filings, department lawyers conceded that Interior has struggled with efforts to reform, but they argued department officials have done nothing to directly violate a court order which would justify a finding of contempt.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, along with a group of other Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class-action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for millions of dollars in unreconciled individual Indian accounts. The federal government currently holds $450 million in approximately 300,000 individual trust accounts. There reportedly are no records for more than $100 million of those dollars. Lamberth has said he would consider personal fines and confinement for government officials if they were found in contempt again.