Key Norton aide nominated for top legal spot
Wednesday, March 10, 2004

NOMINEE: Sue Ellen Wooldridge, aide to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, to go before Senate Energy Committee for confirmation hearing. File Photo © The Daily Triplicate.
A Department of Interior aide who has played a key role in crafting some of the Bush administration's most controversial Indian policies is being considered as the agency's top lawyer.

Sue Ellen Wooldridge has been serving as Secretary Gale Norton's deputy chief of staff and counselor since January 2001. She would be promoted to the position of Interior Solicitor if the Senate approves her confirmation.

"Sue Ellen has been a tremendous asset in her current position at Interior, and I'm excited that she will bring her unique talents to our legal department as we continue to manage our national treasures," Norton said on January 30 after President Bush announced the nomination.

As one of Norton's most trusted aides, Wooldridge acts as the secretary's eyes and ears in high-profile disputes. In the area of Indian affairs, she has offered crucial advice that formed the basis of Norton's eventual decisions.

In fact, Wooldridge was relied upon so much that a federal judge once threatened to hold her in contempt for approving a costly statistical sampling plan of Indian trust accounts without conducting any research into the project. Just a few short weeks into the Bush administration, Norton simply signed a memo Wooldridge prepared on the accounting and touted it as significant progress in her first appearance before Congress.

"I didn't really understand that memo as making a choice on the various models of accounting," Norton said in federal court when asked about the issue. "Without realizing that i might be viewed as contrary to anything that this court had said," she continued, "I basically signed it and said get busy, go ahead and start moving on this activity."

A few months into the new administration, Wooldridge played another pivotal role, this time in the handling of the Klamath Basin water crisis. Even though area tribes, who have legally-enforceable water rights, were promised restored flows, Norton reversed course after thousands of non-Indian farmers complained.

"I don't think you really want the federal government to play God," Wooldridge later told area farmers, according to one press account.

But leaders of the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes, who weren't directly consulted before the decision was made, felt betrayed. Anti-Indian sentiments, particularly in the town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, the Klamath tribal headquarters, were running high at the time. Farmers blamed their woes on the tribes.

A massive fishkill in the lower part of the basin only heightened criticism. "Last summer, 30-to-40,000 salmon died on on my reservation at home due to bad water management decisions at the Department of the Interior," Sue Masten, then-chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California, said in February 2003.

Yet Wooldridge, and Norton to some extent, recovered from these stumbles. After a court-appointed monitor uncovered Wooldridge's lack of diligence on the accounting, Norton dropped the sampling plan.

The use of sampling has since been revived, in some form, but under the advice of accountants and not Wooldridge. Yet as Interior's top attorney, she would be responsible for providing legal advice in the Indian trust fund case and overseeing the legal strategy.

And on the Klamath Basin, Wooldridge began to work more closely with area tribes, earning accolades for her attention to the testy issue. For the first time in half a century, restoration of a portion of the the Klamath Tribes' original 1.1-million acre reservation is on the table. Wooldridge has remained a key player.

Wooldridge came to the Interior as a result of her ties to Norton. Wooldridge, an attorney by training, worked for California's attorney general when Norton, as Colorado's attorney general, shepherded a landmark $200 billion settlement to multi-state tobacco litigation.

The Senate Energy Committee is holding a hearing on Wooldridge's nomination tomorrow. If confirmed, Wooldridge would replace Bill Myers, who has encountered significant tribal and environmental opposition as a potential judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Relevant Reports:
Full Report: Allegations Concerning Conduct of Department of the Interior Employees Involved in Various Aspects of the Cobell Litigation (June 2002) | Court Monitor's First Report (July 2003)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Probe raises more questions than answers (08/07)
How to Mismanage Indian Trust Assets Without Really Trying (08/07)
Tribal bias charged in Klamath dispute (03/14)
Federal judge targets Norton aide for contempt (12/13)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Office of the Solicitor, DOI -
Klamath Tribes -
Klamath Basin in Crisis -

Related Stories:
White House called weekly about casino (11/05)
Norton aide knew little about DOI (05/15)
Top officials facing court investigations (5/7)
For Norton, a shaky year in trust (02/15)
Norton tries to convince judge on trust reform (2/14)
Norton contempt trial opens (12/10)
Norton attacks court monitor (12/10)
Norton set for contempt trial (12/10)
Norton slammed by trust fund monitor (7/12)
Norton takes trust into own hands (7/11)
Norton drops trust fund sampling plan (7/10)

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