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Norton closer to contempt charge

WASHINGTON ? Interior Secretary Gale Norton may be a step closer to being charged with contempt of court in the ongoing lawsuit over Individual Indian Money trust funds.

The special master, an attorney appointed by the judge to oversee certain issues in Cobell vs. Norton has recommended that Norton and her legal counsel be held in contempt for failing to comply with an order to protect federal employees who provide information relevant to the case.

In his opinion Special Master Alan Balaran wrote that top officials at Interior had not properly advised employees that they could talk to attorneys in the case without fear of retaliation. Balaran said 'senior management officials neglected to marshal its resources, impose its authority, and demand the results needed from its subordinates' to comply with an Anti-Reprisal Order issue by the court.

'In this instance, the particular circumstances reveal a patterned failure to observe the terms of the Anti-Reprisal Order ... ,' Balaran wrote. 'Upon this record, it is the finding of the Special Master that defendant has fallen far short of the requisite diligence and good faith necessary to ground a finding of compliance.'

Balaran was appointed by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth to investigate records held by the federal government which are missing or have been destroyed. He cited the departments of Interior and Treasury in the past for violating other court orders.

As a result of similar investigations, Judge Lamberth 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. Lawyers for Interior claimed they could not produce documents because they were covered in mouse droppings and in a state of disarray.

Just before Balaran issued his most recent opinion, Judge Lamberth rejected a request by the Department of Treasury to be released from its obligation to file bi-weekly reports with the court.

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In December 1999, Judge Lamberth ruled the American 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 American Indian account beneficiaries. Judge Lamberth kept jurisdiction over trust reform efforts for five years and ordered federal officials to file reports on their progress.

Attorneys for the government have argued the law is unclear before 1994 and that the government should be able to move forward with reforms without judicial oversight.

Since assuming her role as Interior secretary, Norton has been outspoken about her commitment to resolve the trust funds problem. However, the plaintiffs in the case claim Norton and officials under her watch made poor decisions and intentionally misled the court.

Blackfeet Elouise Cobell and a group of American Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for millions of dollars in unreconciled Individual Indian Money accounts. The federal government holds approximately $450 million in nearly 500,000 individual trust accounts. Reportedly there are no records for more than $100 million of those dollars.

Interior spokeswomen Stephanie Hanna said Interior has never retaliated against any employee involved in this case.

'We've encouraged employees to speak with the special master, and, if employees are not comfortable with speaking with the special master, we've provided other avenues,' Hanna said.

It is not clear when Judge Lamberth may act on the special master's latest recommendation.