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Vital e-mails destroyed by Interior in delays

WASHINGTON - A court-appointed official has accused the Department of the Interior of violating a federal judge's order by erasing e-mails sought by American Indian plaintiffs in the case of Cobell vs. Norton.

The official, Special Master Alan Balaran, said Justice Department attorneys stalled by arguing repeatedly in court that the department was preserving the evidence.

Balaran's opinion states that tapes at a number of offices throughout the country were overwritten and much of the information contained on the tapes destroyed. Balaran said Interior "has ignored its duty to retain and preserve back-up tapes of e-mail messages."

Alan Balaran, an attorney, was appointed by Judge Royce C. Lamberth to investigate records in the case held by the federal government which have been found missing or destroyed. In his opinion, destruction of the tapes began in June 1998, when the court ordered the tapes preserved, and lasted until November 2000.

Just weeks before Balaran's opinion was released, another court official issued a report accusing the federal government of failing in its plan to resolve the trust funds problem and intentionally misleading the court and American Indian beneficiaries.

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In his opinion, Balaran said that the plaintiffs should be reimbursed for the cost of litigating the e-mail issue because of the government's conduct, calling Interior's attempts to limit its obligations "inappropriate."

Stephanie Hanna, an Interior spokeswoman, denied the department knowingly erased the tapes, saying "we have made every effort to retain important e-mails and documents."

Balaran cited the Departments of Interior and Treasury in the past for violating court orders. 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.

As a result of investigations, Judge Lamberth found former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, former Assistant 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.

Earlier in the case, lawyers for Interior claimed they could not comply with a court order to produce documents because they were covered in mouse droppings and in a state of disarray.

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.