Plaintiffs ask judge to hold Norton in contempt

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WASHINGTON - Plaintiffs in the case over billions of dollars in tribal trust funds are asking a federal judge to hold Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court in an attempt to stop the federal government from shredding documents relevant to the case.

The motion was filed after a report was released by a court official who says he witnessed destruction of documents in a federal office building.

"Once again the government has failed to ensure the maintenance and preservation of important trust data," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "This office contains all the information that is necessary for the management of these trust accounts. This is important material."

In the report cited by the plaintiffs' motion, Alan Balaran, a special attorney appointed by the court in Cobell vs. Norton, found lax security and poor management at the BIA's new Office of Information Resources Management. The report said security measures at the BIA's new Ely S. Parker building are nearly nonexistent and recommendations from staff for improvements have been ignored.

The report says Balaran and another man entered the facility through a construction entrance and "with the assistance of an employee who did not request that we produce any identification" walked past the security desk twice without being "detected, questioned or detained." Balaran says that once in the resources management office area he found documents in a shredder labeled "Individual Indian Monies Interests Calculations." When employees were questioned about the printout, they reported that the calculations were contained on a computer backup tape.

Interior claims the document found by Balaran was a printout used to test the security system and not an original document. They say the document was shredded for security purposes because it contained a Social Security number.

In the report Balaran also went on to cite missing handles and locks on doors, as well as outside contractors working in the facility without proper security clearance. Balaran cited the departments of Interior and Treasury in the past for violating court orders. As a result of his investigations, Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who presides over the case, found former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, former Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover, and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in contempt of court for failing to comply in a full and timely manner with a discovery order in the case.

Interior Spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna brushed off the plaintiffs' recent motion, labeling it "ridiculous," saying it is nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, along with a group of other American Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars in unreconciled tribal trust funds and Individual Indian Monies. The federal government currently holds approximately $450 million in nearly 500,000 individual trust accounts. There reportedly are no records for more than 100 million of those dollars. In tribal trust accounts overall $2.4 billion still remains unreconciled.

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

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 Interior officials to file quarterly reports on their progress.

Since assuming her role as secretary of Interior, Norton has been outspoken about her commitment to resolve the trust funds problem. However, plaintiffs claim in court documents that Norton misled the court about the shredding of material at the new building and that "her counsel concealed from this Court and the Master opinions of security experts who identified clear and present risks - including fraud-... ." They say Secretary Norton also refused a request for an official investigation into the matter.

"It's the same pattern of misleading the court that has been putting in harm's way vital trust information throughout this process," said Harper.

Judge Lamberth already said that he would consider personal fines and confinement for government officials if they were found in contempt again.