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Retaliation alleged in firing of trust fund manager
Thursday, September 18, 2003

A senior Department of Interior manager who objected to the way the federal government carries out its trust responsibilities was fired this week.

Kevin Gambrell served as director of the Farmington Indian Minerals Office (FIMO) in New Mexico since 1996. During that time, he received praise from Navajo landowners, who said he looked after their best interests, increased the return on their trust assets and kept them informed.

Gambrell did not always earn the same accolades from his superiors, who launched an investigation into his management of FIMO after placing him on administrative leave with pay in early May. In a confidential report issued a month later, a group of Interior employees accused him of destroying trust records while admitting no information was lost.

As a result of the report, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) a month ago said it would fire Gambrell. The termination was made official on Monday on the grounds that he violated policy and failed to follow orders.

But supporters in the Navajo Nation say that Gambrell was the victim of retaliation for speaking out on behalf of about 6,000 Navajos who land generates about $8 million in oil and gas royalties every year.

"They are using him as scapegoat," said Irvin Chavez, president of the Shii Shi Keyah Allottee Association, an organization of Navajo landowners. "Kevin has always and will continue to speak for the Navajo people out there."

Gambrell is also being backed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national organization. The group yesterday said it would file a complaint with the federal judge overseeing the Indian trust fund lawsuit, charging that the government violated a court order barring retaliation against employees who have contact with the court.

"Kevin Gambrell's career difficulties started the moment his phone records showing contact with the [court's] special master were discovered," said PEER's general counsel Dan Meyer, who is working on an appeal of the termination to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board.

In documents filed with the merit board, Gambrell says his conversations with special master Alan Balaran are directly linked to actions his superiors took against him. In the months leading to his suspension in May, he spoke with Balaran about the undervaluation of Navajo lands and other issues.

The contacts led to a highly critical report from Balaran, who found that Navajo allottees were not receiving fair market value for their land. Private landowners, and even other tribes, received up to 20 times more from oil and gas companies, the August report said.

As part of Balaran's investigation, a Bureau of Indian Affairs appraiser admitted destroying Navajo trust records, but no action was taken against him. The employee was transferred out of the Navajo region and now works in the Pacific Northwest.

A similar situation occurred when a Department of Interior inspector general investigation found that MMS auditors falsified data relating to a Navajo audit. One of the auditors was given a cash bonus for "creativity" but no one involved was terminated, unlike Gambrell.

FIMO is a unique entity within Interior's bureaucracy, whose trust management duties are divided among different agencies. Designed as a "one-stop" shop for Navajo beneficiaries, it houses employees from BIA, MMS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Gambrell was hired as FIMO's director in 1996 to resolve problems identified by a class action lawsuit that Chavez's organization brought against the government. FIMO records show that Gambrell, through audits and settlements with oil and gas companies, has been able to recover seven times the amount of royalties due to Navajo landowners.

Many of the Navajos served by FIMO are elderly and speak little English. Chavez said they have lost confidence in the office due to Interior's upper-level meddling and treatment of Gambrell.

"I think what they are wanting to put in place is more of of the 'yes-sir' people," he said. "Those are people I don't trust."

"You need more people like Kevin, who will really work for the customer -- that is us, the Navajo allottees," he added. "Kevin was doing an excellent job. They really dumped on him and that's the sad part of this."

Relevant Documents:
Kevin Gambrell: Statement of Facts (September 2003) | Special Master Site Report to Navajo Nation (August 2003) Confidential FIMO Report [Redacted] (June 2003) | Cover Letters (June 2003) |

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov

Related Stories:
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Whistle-blower warned DOI on Navajo land use (08/21)
Court master releases report on Navajo appraisals (8/20)
Swimmer weighs consolidation of appraisals (8/15)
Norton admits Interior hid facts from Congress (7/24)
Navajo trust fund manager targeted in internal probe (07/15)
Indian employees challenging DOI reorganization (06/03)
Navajo leaders criticize upheaval at trust fund office (05/09)
Confusion detailed at Interior (10/16)

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