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Plaintiffs again push for contempt over trust

WASHINGTON ? Following release of another court report critical of government handling of billions of dollars in American Indian trust funds, plaintiffs in Cobell vs. Norton are seeking contempt charges against 39 federal officials.

And they are asking a federal judge to strip away federal government control of trust reform.

In papers filed in the D.C. District Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs said Interior Secretary Gale Norton, her senior staff and attorneys "willfully and repeatedly have misled this Court and in bad faith have failed to take any meaningful steps to rectify serious and continuing breaches of trust found by this Court ..."

Citing numerous reports filed by Court Monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III and Special Master Alan Balaran, the plaintiffs ask the court to order the government to show why senior Interior and Justice officials, including Norton and former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, should not be held in contempt.

In their reports to Judge Royce C. Lamberth, Kieffer and Balaran said the federal government failed in its plan to resolve the trust funds problem and is intentionally misleading the court and American Indian beneficiaries. In his most recent report Kieffer said that the current administration filed false information about trust reform efforts and even intimidated federal employees.

"Given their horrible behavior, you have to ask, what it is about the truth that they don't want us to know?" asked lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell.

Blackfeet Cobell and a group of other American Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class action in 1996 to force the federal government to account for millions of dollars in unreconciled Individual Indian Monies or IIM. The financial records maintained by the government reflect investment of as much as $500 million a year of American Indian trust funds in government securities on behalf of more than 300,000 individual American Indian trust beneficiaries.

Officials included in the contempt motion are Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover and a number of current and former senior managers and government attorneys.

Plaintiffs say the federal government's lack of response to the recent reports indicates an unwillingness to ever comply with the court's orders.

"The unabated breaches of trust, routine violations of this Court's orders, endless broken promises, chronic half-truths, outright lies to this Court, and the fumbling paralysis of the Interior Secretary and the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, and their senior managers, counselors, and counsel, demonstrate conclusively that they are unfit to serve as delegated fiduciaries and counsel to the IIM Trust," plaintiffs said in their motion.

Judge Lamberth found former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, Babbitt and Gover in contempt of court for failing to comply in a full and timely manner with an earlier discovery order. This time the plaintiffs are asking for jail time up to 180 days each and both personal and official financial sanctions.

To address the federal government's continued inability to deal with the trust reform process, the plaintiffs are asking the court to appoint a receiver to oversee trust reform efforts. A "receiver" would be an individual or group of individuals appointed by the court to take over control of trust management decisions currently made by administration officials.

"It is evident that we need a receiver to take over this process," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "The mismanagement we find here is at all levels, from the secretary to mid-level managers and career folks who have no idea how to run a trust."

Interior spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna declined to comment on the plaintiffs' most recent motion. She did say trust reform was a top priority for Secretary Norton.

To date, approximately $625,000 in sanctions have been leveled against the federal government for violations during the court's consideration of this case. Congress has appropriated approximately $614 million for trust reform, while in tribal trust accounts overall $2.4 billion still remains unreconciled. Recently, Congress approved another $150 million for trust reform efforts next year.