FROM THE ARCHIVE

Interior admits to more destruction of e-mails

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TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2002

A federal court has opened an investigation that could bring additional contempt charges against Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

McCaleb, who joined the Bush administration in July 2001, has already been sanctioned for providing misleading information about efforts to fix the broken Indian trust fund. But in that instance, he was named in his official capacity as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The new probe focuses on events that occurred under his watch and during a series of high-profile court investigations, including one specifically related to computer systems. Despite the attention, McCaleb's e-mail has been regularly destroyed in violation of judicial orders, according to recent correspondence.

A Department of Interior attorney admitted to the destruction last week. In an October 16 letter to Alan Balaran, the special master in the Cobell class action, Solicitor Sabrina McCarthy, a career bureaucrat, said she will fully investigate the lapse in judgment.

But Balaran isn't satisfied entirely with the response. He has asked the federal government to explain how countless records were erased during a 10-month period and, perhaps more importantly, how the contemptuous behavior wasn't discovered until recently.

"That the destruction of e-mails received by a senior Interior official could take place for such an extended period of time suggests the absence of effective policies and procedures that ensure the preservation and retention of electronic correspondence," Balaran wrote in an October 20 letter.

The Interior is under sweeping court orders designed to prevent the loss of information in a trust that has historically been characterized by it. Since 1887, the federal government has failed to keep adequate records for 500,000 individual Indian beneficiaries, numerous court rulings and reports have shown.

The directives, however, haven't always kept Indian trust records safe. In early 1999 -- while the Clinton administration was on trial for failing to produce documents -- federal employees destroyed at least 162 boxes of information. Government attorneys knew of the destruction but waited months to inform the court.

The dismal record has applied to electronic communication as well. During the course of 18 months, department e-mails were lost, erased and otherwise destroyed, Secretary Gale Norton admitted in a recent court filing.

But she disclaimed responsibility for because she said the destruction transpired before her arrival at the Interior. She also said that no punishment was warranted because the e-mails can't be brought back.

The department's Inspector General Earl E. Devaney came to a similar conclusion when he investigated the incident. According to the report, a key Interior attorney said he "had never heard of Cobell" more than two years into the case and was never told about any court orders.

"Even if there was something I wanted to erase, I wouldn’t know how to do it," another attorney whose backup tapes were erased claimed.

The McCaleb incident involves incoming correspondence to his e-mail account from December 1, 2001, to October 1, 2002. Although the BIA's computer systems have been disconnected from the Interior, McCaleb can still receive internal e-mail.

Relevant Documents:
Special Master Letter on E-Mails (10/20) | Full Report: Allegations Concerning Conduct of Department of the Interior Employees Involved in Various Aspects of the Cobell Litigation (June 2002)

Related Stories:
Probe raises more questions than answers (08/07)
DOI investigation released (8/7)
No one to punish for destroyed e-mails (4/10)
Request for trust fund probe rejected (11/7)
Internal trust fund investigation sought (8/22)