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Navajo leaders criticize upheaval at trust fund office
FRIDAY, MAY 9, 2003

A senior Department of Interior manager who was trying to determine whether oil companies were cheating Indian landowners of royalties was removed from his post this week, Navajo leaders said.

On Monday, Kevin Gambrell reported to work as director of the Farmington Indian Minerals Office (FIMO) in Farmington, New Mexico. He was immediately placed on administrative leave with pay, his keys and employee badge were seized, and he was sent home.

"It's all retaliation," said Ervin Chavez, president of the Shii Shi Keyah Allottee Association, an influential group of about 6,000 Navajo tribal members whose royalties are overseen by Gambrell's office. "That's what I think it is."

Calvert Garcia, an aide to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., received word of the suspension over the weekend and was shocked. He called Gambrell an "advocate" and said top officials were punishing Gambrell for his pro-Indian stance.

"I believe Kevin was a victim of helping the Indians," said Garcia, who is also president of the Nageezi Chapter, "and the government retaliated." Garcia said the chapter unanimously approved a resolution opposing changes at the office.

Reached at his home in Farmington, Gambrell refused to comment and would not confirm his employment status. Becky Phipps, a spokesperson for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), Gambrell's parent agency, also declined to elaborate.

"We can't comment on aspects of that," she said yesterday.

But Navajo leaders said it was clear that Gambrell and his staff were being singled out, citing recent upheaval at FIMO. They said he was pushing for accurate accountings of the approximately $8 million in oil and gas royalties that MMS takes in every year on behalf of Navajo beneficiaries.

"The bottom line is that you want to make sure that the oil and gas royalties are in the right amount, the valuation is the right amount and that the money is getting into the right account on a timely basis," said Chavez. "Those are the issues that Kevin was on top of."

Navajo beneficiaries in the Four Corners have been among the most affected by the shutdown of the Interior's computer systems, which lack adequate security protections. FIMO remains disconnected from the Internet to this day, causing delays in payments to landowners.

"It really gave an advantage to oil companies," said Garcia. "They weren't paying their rightful payouts to the Indian allottees."

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

Created through settlement of a class action lawsuit, Shii Shi Keyah Association v. Babbitt, FIMO was under court order to report on its progress for five years. But ever since the deadline expired, beneficiaries say they have encountered roadblocks. Gambrell, they say, was trying to eliminate those.

Due to the degrading situation, Chavez said his association will meet to consider asking a federal judge to reopen the consent decree that settled the trust fund claims.

"You have people who continue to cover up or keep the system closed so tight that they do not let this information out," Chavez asserted. "You basically have to have a court order to find out what's going on."

FIMO has earned praise for its streamlined approach to trust management. At one point, former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb said the Bush administration wanted to replicate its success.

Gambrell has been FIMO's director since since its inception in 1996. According to office records, he has helped recover millions of dollars in unpaid royalties.

Currently, the BIA and OST are undergoing a reorganization but Nedra Darling, a BIA spokesperson, said it should have little effect on FIMO. There are four BIA employees at the office, she said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said there was confusion nonetheless. "The Department of the Interior -- despite its mantra of communication, consultation, and cooperation -- has failed to adequately consult with the Navajo Nation and Indian Country in general regarding its proposal to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the affects that such a move could have on Federal Indian Minerals Office and other local BIA offices," he said.

"The result has been unprecedented suspicion and concern regarding the future of the BIA, from its structure in Washington, D.C., to its offices in New Mexico," he added, "and I think that is very unfortunate."

Filed in 1984, the Shii Shi Keyah lawsuit forced the government to comply with federal reporting requirements. The Interior claimed the law didn't apply to Indian trust fund accounts.

The lawsuit also requires the Interior to deposit oil and gas royalties into the appropriate accounts within 30 days.

Related Stories:
DOI removes director of Navajo trust fund office (5/7)
Trust fund class action sees support (07/03)
Royalty ruling impacts Indian trust (04/30)

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