Court sees whistleblower retaliation in Indian trust fund case

Evidence indicates the Interior Department retaliated against an employee who cooperated with lawyers seeking to recover millions of dollars in Indian trust funds, a federal court official found last week. As a result of the findings, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and other agency officials could be held in contempt of court. Alan L. Balaran, a court-appointed special master overseeing a four-year-old lawsuit involving the government's management of individual trust accounts for Native Americans, found "sufficient evidence" suggesting the agency retaliated against a whistleblower by stripping her of any involvement in trust-related work because of her cooperation with the plaintiffs' attorneys. According to Balaran's report, Mona Infield, a computer specialist in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' national records center in Albuquerque, N.M., signed affidavits in March 2000 criticizing BIA's management of Indian trust funds. Infield worked in the Office of Information Resource Management, which 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. Responding to Balaran's findings, Interior spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna said the department plans to prove it did not retaliate against Infield. "We regret the findings, and we intend to present evidence at a hearing substantiating the department's opinion that no retaliation was taken against Mona Infield," said Hanna. Infield is currently on administrative leave from BIA, but is still receiving a government salary. According to Balaran's report, Interior officials stripped Infield of her trust record duties, barred her from her office and ordered her to work from home after she cooperated with the plaintiffs' attorneys. Allegations of mismanagement of the BIA trust accounting system have plagued the agency for years. As part of its reform effort, the agency mandated a relocation of all BIA administrative operations from Albuquerque to Reston, Va.--a move designed to bring its accounting and information resource operations closer to BIA's Washington headquarters. Infield said Interior officials told her last March that she could remain on detail in the Albuquerque office at her current position for three to four years, as the office move would take some time. Infield alleged that Interior officials halted their efforts to help her remain in Albuquerque after she signed affidavits criticizing the agency later that month. According to Hanna, the information resource management office has already been completely relocated to Reston. In 1996, the Native American Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against Interior to recover money from the government for trust fund beneficiaries. In February 1999, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held 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 case.
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