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Appraiser warned DOI of undervaluation of Indian lands
Monday, December 6, 2004

The Interior Department was warned that oil and gas companies were cheating members of the Navajo Nation over a year before a court investigator's scathing report into the matter, according to an affidavit filed in court last week.

In a lengthy statement, Deborah Lewis, an appraiser with the Office of the Special Trustee, laid out numerous problems with the way Navajo landowners have been treated. She accused the former chief appraiser for the Navajo region of misconduct for destroying documents needed to ensure that allottees were receiving fair market value for use of their land.

Lewis discovered that Anson Baker, as chief appraiser, allowed oil and gas companies to use Navajo land for just $25 to $40 per rod, a unit of distance. Meanwhile, non-Indian landowners were paid up to 20 times that amount, and even the Navajo Nation received far more for tribal land activities.

Bu when Lewis, a certified appraiser with 10 years of experience with appraisals at the state, tribal and federal level, relayed her concerns to OST superiors, she said she was ignored. Her memos, phone calls and conversation were of no help because key officials "had no background in appraisals" or simply refused to respond, the affidavit states.

"To this date," Lewis said in the affidavit filed last Thursday, "I have never been asked a single question or received a single response to my repeated expressions of concern from the Interior Department's Solicitor's Office, the Office of the Inspector General, or BIA Navajo Regional office senior managers and realty officers about the nature and scope of Baker's intentional document destruction and the routine undervaluation of allottee rights-of-way that I confirmed at Navajo."

The plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit haven't been successful in their quest to find answers either. In March, they deposed Baker, who has since been transferred to the BIA's Pacific Northwest region to work as the chief appraiser there, but were blocked from asking most questions by a Department of Justice attorney.

SmartMoney.Com, which first reported the existence of the affidavit on Friday, said Baker was due to be questioned under oath again about his actions. The site quoted a source who said the government doesn't want him "up in front of a court [because] they would find that this isn't just Anson Baker, this is systematic."

Yet other officials haven't been entirely forthcoming more than a year after a court report confirmed the undervaluation of Navajo lands that Lewis identified when she started looking into Baker's work in September 2002. Released in August 2003, the report was last major investigation by special master Alan Balaran, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was pressured to resign by the Bush administration.

At the time of the report, Interior officials said Balaran lacked "expertise on appraisal issues." Attorneys for Secretary Gale Norton, have argued that Interior's appraisal process is beyond the scope of the case because it isn't related to an historical accounting. A federal appeals court on Friday rejected a similar defense with regard to information technology.

Appraisal of trust lands used to be handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until it was transferred to OST in early 2002 without tribal consultation or a public comment process. Tribal leaders have a long-standing request to reverse the decision but Special Trustee Ross Swimmer has said that will not happen.

Swimmer, in public statements and in a sworn deposition, has also suggested that undervaluation of Indian lands is acceptable due to government "bureaucracy."

"If I were to value the land next door to that Indian land, same land, identical, I would probably put a higher value on non-Indian land," Swimmer said in a June 23, 2003, deposition. "Just a matter of bureaucracy. If I can lease the land next door at a comparable price, then I would do that rather than lease the Indian land."

Lewis, a member of the Navajo Nation, joined Interior in September 1991. According to her affidavit, she has worked in appraisals in all parts of the nation and was often "detailed" to different BIA regions and agencies to alleviate appraisal backlogs.

It was during a detail to the Navajo region from September 2002 to January 2003 when Lewis learned of Baker's actions. In addition to oil and gas companies, she said a billboard company had been using Navajo lands without compensating the owners for 10 years.

The BIA Navajo region has since comer under scrutiny for an agreement its director signed with a telecommunications company to use Navajo land without first compensating the owners. Elderly Navajos, many of whom have limited or no knowledge of English, were asked to sign consent forms without being told how much their land is worth or how much they will receive for use of their land, family members and advocates said.

Related Story:
Fraud in New Mexico (SmartMoney.Com 12/3)

Relevant Documents:
Deborah Lewis Affidavit (December 2, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Trust fund special master alleges government fraud (04/07)
Special master Balaran resigns from Cobell lawsuit (4/6)
Lamberth defends special master against attack (03/16)
Navajo landowners question BIA agreement with company (10/21)
Retaliation alleged in firing of trust fund manager (09/18)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Navajo trust fund manager targeted in internal probe (07/15)
DOI employees falsified Navajo trust data (06/11)
Navajo leaders criticize upheaval at trust fund office (05/09)
Memo: Solicitor's order was 'intimidating' (10/10)
Interior delaying trust reform report (9/6)

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