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Trust plaintiffs ask judge to hold federal officials in contempt

WASHINGTON ? American Indian plaintiffs requested a federal judge to hold Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb and other officials in contempt for misconduct in the ongoing case over individual American Indian trust accounts.

In a recent motion the plaintiffs contend the government perpetrated a fraud and misled the court in the class action lawsuit.

"Defendants have acted in bad faith in their malfeasant management of the Individual Indian Trust and they and their counsel have acted and continue to act in bad faith in this litigation," the plaintiffs said in the contempt motion.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, along with a group of other American Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class action in 1996 to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars in unreconciled tribal trust funds and Individual Indian Monies.

This most recent motion specifically focuses on the federal government's actions as detailed in two court reports filed this summer by an investigator appointed by the judge in the case. The investigator wrote that the federal government failed in its plan to resolve the trust funds problem and intentionally misleading the court and American Indian beneficiaries.

Officials included in this contempt motion are Norton, McCaleb, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover and a number of government lawyers. The plaintiffs say the federal government's lack of response to the recent reports indicates an unwillingness to ever comply with the court's orders.

"Unfortunately, once again, defendants prefer spin and deception to candor; they insist that this Court should accept without question, despite their repeated failures and frauds, their transparent

and self-serving claims that their promise to create a plan means that defendants have prepared a plan ... ," the plaintiffs wrote.

Since taking over at Interior, Secretary Norton and BIA head McCaleb have been outspoken about their commitment to resolve the trust funds problem. However, the plaintiffs claim Norton and officials under her watch made poor decisions and intentionally misled the court.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth already found former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, Babbitt, and Gover in contempt for failing to comply in a full and timely manner with an earlier discovery order. To date, approximately $625,000 in sanctions have been leveled against the federal government for violations during the court's consideration of this case.

The recent motion also asks Judge Lamberth to set a date of Oct. 19 as the deadline for completing a historical accounting. Plaintiffs contend that this accounting was ordered by the court nearly two years ago. In December 1999, Judge Lamberth ruled that 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.

"How long do we have to wait for the government to decide that they are going to comply with the law," asked Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "Their time is going to run out."

Earlier this year, the plaintiffs filed a similar contempt motion against Secretary Norton over reported destruction of documents by Interior employees. Judge Lamberth has said he would consider personal fines and confinement for government officials if they were found in contempt again.