Interior Secretary could be held in contempt

Interior Secretary Gale Norton may face contempt of court charges for failing to comply with a federal court order in a four-year-old lawsuit involving the Bureau of Indian Affairs' management of individual trust funds for Native Americans. A group of Native Americans filed a motion Monday with U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lambert, alleging that Norton and her lawyers failed to properly inform employees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that they could speak freely and without fear of retaliation with a court-appointed official about problems involving trust fund accounts. In a Feb. 8 order, Alan L. Balaran, a court-appointed special master overseeing the case, directed Interior to distribute a memorandum to BIA assuring employees that they could communicate with the special master's office on any trust-fund related matter in confidence and without fear of reprisal. In February, Balaran found evidence that Interior retaliated against Mona Infield, a computer specialist in the BIA's national records center who cooperated with lawyers on the case.

BIA handles roughly 300,000 trust accounts and is responsible for sending checks to Indian trust beneficiaries. Beneficiaries rely on trust funds for basic living necessities. Allegations of mismanagement of the BIA trust accounting system have plagued the agency for years.

Interior issued a memorandum Feb. 16 that directed staff to comply with the order and informed employees that they wouldn't be retaliated against for speaking with the special master's office. But lawyers for the Native Americans do not think the agency's action went far enough.

"While defendants and their counsel represented that an appropriate memorandum had been distributed to all employees, such representations were false," said the motion filed by the Native Americans' lawyers. According to the motion, Balaran surveyed 15 randomly chosen field offices on March 2 to check if his order had been issued. He found that nearly half the offices had not distributed the order to all employees.

Interior spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna said information sometimes takes a little longer to reach remote BIA offices.

"The fact is that BIA has some very remote offices, and not everyone has e-mail, so not everyone receives everything at the same time," said Hanna. "The department has made every effort to distribute these memoranda," she said.

In February 1999, Lamberth held then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt; his assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Kevin Gover; and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt of court for failing to produce records involved in the same case.

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