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Navajo trust fund manager targeted in internal probe
TUESDAY, JULY 15, 2003

A senior Department of Interior manager who has accused his superiors of retaliation is at the center of an internal report alleging massive destruction of Indian trust documents in New Mexico.

According to the confidential June 10 report, employees at the Farmington Indian Minerals Office destroyed a "large volume" of information related to Navajo oil and gas leases in the Four Corners. A dumpster was filled with documents during a 3-1/2 day period in late March, the review found.

"The estimated volume of the shredded material ranged from between 5 and 24 30-gallon trash bags," the report states.

Despite the allegations contained in the report, issued by a team of employees and not the department's inspector general, there is dispute whether the shredded documents were actually trust records. FIMO employees said they only destroyed copies, not originals, according to the report.

But the Office of Trust Records, which is under the oversight of Special Trustee Ross Swimmer, said the documents, consisting of financial reports and a list of payments made to Navajo allottees, were indeed trust records. Two OTR employees were part of the team that investigated the incident.

At the same time, the report concludes that there was little information lost as a result of the shredding. "Most of the destroyed records can be reconstructed albeit at a substantial expenditure of time and resources," it states.

Contacted as his home in Farmington yesterday, Kevin Gambrell, the director of FIMO, gave only a short statement about the investigation. "I have no knowledge of any destruction of Indian trust records in my office," he said. He declined further comment.

Gambrell has been on administrative leave with pay since May 5, more than a month before the report was completed. He has since filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging widespread mismanagement of Navajo trust assets by the Interior.

Navajo leaders in the Four Corners have rallied in support of Gambrell, whom they consider an advocate for the 6,000 Navajo beneficiaries whose $8 million in oil and gas royalties is handled by FIMO. They have called him the victim of retaliation by top officials who want to cover up problems associated with their trust fund accounts.

Nicolette Humphries, a Minerals Management Service spokesperson, said the issue has been placed in the hands of the Johnnie Burton, the director of MMS, the agency to which Gambrell reports. She declined comment about potential action being taken against Gambrell or other FIMO employees, characterizing it as a personnel issue.

But rather than blame Gambrell and his employees, the real problem lies with Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney handling the Cobell Indian trust fund lawsuit. Despite the existence of court orders, he said the department lacks a clear definition of an Indian trust record, a key aspect of its fiduciary duties.

"We think that this isn't a problem on the ground or of individual employees whom the government is trying to scapegoat," he said yesterday, "but rather a problem of the Secretary and her senior officials failing to ensure the orders of this court are adhered to."

Harper added that it was "suspicious" that the target of the report was Gambrell, who has received praise for his work on behalf of Indian beneficiaries. "We just think it's not surprising but that's how they've carried out this entire litigation," he said.

According to the report, it wasn't until April 30 -- a month after the alleged destruction was first disclosed -- that Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles issued a new policy intended to guide employees on the definition of a trust record. The so-called "records tree" was in "draft form" at the time of the probe into FIMO, the report notes.

The report also says the department's Office of Inspector General declined to pursue an investigation of the alleged destruction. The IG recently took MMS to task for falsifying audit records related to a Navajo lease. In that case, the three MMS employees involved were disciplined but not before one received a cash award for "creativity." Interior never informed the Navajo Nation or individual allottees about the incident until months after the IG probe was completed.

OTR, which is based in Albuquerque, has come under scrutiny of its own. Alan Balaran, the special master in the Cobell case, has issued a series of stinging reports about the office's failure to carry out its trust reform duties. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth at one point imposed a restraining order against Interior to prevent OTR from shipping off trust records to a federal repository without proper planning.

In the recently concluded Cobell trial, Swimmer testified briefly about the alleged destruction on July 2, calling it "a very egregious action." He plans to address the issue in the department's next quarterly report to the court.

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.

Gambrell has been FIMO's director since since its inception in 1996, hired to resolve problems identified by a class action lawsuit, Shi Keyah Association v. Babbitt, brought against the government.

Relevant Documents:
Confidential FIMO Report [Redacted] (June 10, 2003) | Cover Letters (June 2003)

Relevant Links:
Minerals Management Service - http://www.mms.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
DOI employees falsified Navajo trust data (06/11)
Navajo leaders criticize upheaval at trust fund office (05/09)
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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