FROM THE ARCHIVE

McCaleb latest in long line of DOI departures

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MONDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2002

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb isn't the first and probably won't be the last. The Department of Interior has experienced several high-profile shakeups in the past two years, and more can be expected, Secretary Gale Norton warns.

Since the Bush administration took over in January 2001, there have been a staggering number of changes in the Indian affairs arena. Everyone from political appointees to senior managers to government lawyers have been affected.

Norton, in a recent quarterly report to the court overseeing the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, blamed the lawsuit for a climate of fear at the Interior. "Departmental employees have seen highly regarded, hard-working career colleagues who have devoted their lives to public service vilified by plaintiffs’ attorneys in court filings, on the Internet and in the media," she wrote.

But in almost every case where an official or employee has been forced to leave, reassigned, stripped of his or her duties or recused from certain matters, the activity can be traced to the direct intervention of top Bush officials.

An early casualty was Dom Nessi, the first chief information officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His infamous February 2001 memo, describing trust reform efforts as "imploding," set in motion Norton's contempt trial, during which he testified on her behalf.

His candid revelations about the lack of computer security at the BIA prompted a court investigation into his claims, which turned out to be true. It also contributed to his decision, at the height of the probe, to leave his post in July 2001.

A year later, Tom Slonaker resigned his post as special trustee for Indian funds under increased pressure over efforts to reform. After openly questioning whether an historical accounting of Indian funds was possible, he was told by Norton to leave or be fired.

"I have to stand up and tell things as they are," he said at the time.

Months earlier, Wayne Smith was given the same ultimatum by Bush officials. Appointed by Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to serve as McCaleb's deputy, he was the target of a smear campaign orchestrated by casino-minded lobbyists and lawyers.

The exit coincided with the retirement of Sharon Blackwell as deputy commissioner for Indian Affairs. Cited in numerous court reports for contributing to an almost warlike atmosphere among top officials and senior managers, she was a key power figure not just on trust funds but on federal recognition, another hot topic for this administration.

The Clinton administration wasn't immune from dustups. In early 1999, former Secretary Bruce Babbitt made an surprise reorganization that prompted the resignation of Paul Homan, the first special trustee, and the eventual retirement of his chief aide Joe Christie, who now works for the special master in the Cobell litigation.

Former assistant secretary Kevin Gover a year later transferred the BIA's computer center from New Mexico to suburban Washington, D.C., a move that left Mona Infield, a computer specialist who blew the whistle on a failed trust fund system, without a job. Under a new court-approved settlement negotiated by lawyers in the Cobell case, she will rejoin the BIA in Albuquerque.

A BIA cohort hasn't been as lucky. Deborah Maddox, who sent Infield packing back in March 2000, was stripped of her oversight of the computer center in a recent, unannounced realignment of the BIA. During the computer security investigation, one of her subordinates claimed nothing was wrong with the systems.

Restructuring has also affected the Office of the Special Trustee, including Tommy Thompson, Slonaker's former top aide. After testifying, along with Slonaker, against Norton in the contempt trial, has fell out of favor with the Bush crowd and has since been gutted of most of his powers by Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles.

Ken Rossman was running the records program at OST until a court investigation cast doubt on his success rate. Shortly thereafter, he secured a top-level post in Washington, D.C., that seemed in doubt after Slonaker was ousted -- until he was assigned to work closely with Donna Erwin, who was hand-picked by Norton as acting special trustee.

And in a first for the department, Edith Blackwell and Tim Elliot, two lawyers within the Office of the Solicitor were barred by Solicitor Bill Myers, a Bush appointee, from certain trust matters over alleged misconduct. A third, Michael Carr, left the department "after his role in certain critical events . . . became increasingly evident," an internal report stated.

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

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