Lamberth takes on tribal trust onslaught
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The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust debacle dealt the Bush administration a major blow this week with his decision to take on several tribal mismanagement disputes.

In a series of court orders, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth agreed to hear from tribes that are demanding an historical accounting of their assets. Rejecting Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's pleas to let someone else handle the cases, he cited numerous parallels with the ongoing Cobell lawsuit he oversees, a class action representing than 500,000 individual Indians.

"The court finds that the defendants' objection is without merit because these cases are replete with common issues of fact," Lamberth wrote in one of the July 23 orders.

The decision affects the Fort Peck Tribes of Montana, the Crow Tribe of Montana, the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana, the Shoshone-Bannock Nation of Idaho and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The tribes had asked to be assigned to Lamberth, whose December 1999 ruling in the Cobell case set the stage for the latest round of lawsuits.

"Lamberth knows the case, Lamberth knows the defendants and Lamberth knows the defendants on the issue of trust duties have performed extraordinarily poorly," said Keith Harper, an attorney who handles Cobell for the Native American Rights Fund, one of the groups behind the tribal onslaught.

Like Cobell, the defendants in the tribal cases are the Departments of Interior and Treasury. Lamberth, in his orders, noted that both individual and tribal trust moneys were deposited in the same Treasury account.

Also like Cobell, the Interior manages oil, gas, mining, timber and other activities on trust lands. "The court will have to determine . . . whether the defendants are administering these leases in accordance with their fiduciary obligations," Lamberth wrote in one order.

And Lamberth said the Interior's woeful computer systems affect tribes just as individual Indians. "Indeed, there is no question," he noted, "that information technology security is a significant issue of fact in cases involving tribal and individual Indian beneficiaries."

Accepting the cases is a setback to the Bush administration. Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, in a March 27 court affidavit filed in the tribal cases, said the Interior was having trouble keeping up with just the Cobell litigation.

"[T]he department has not had sufficient personnel available to do the necessary staff work for and assist in the preparation of the government's response to the complaints in the tribal trust cases," he said.

Trust mismanagement issues threaten to explode throughout the federal court system. A total of 18 lawsuits, including the ones in Lamberth's court in the District of Columbia, seek an accounting of tribal assets.

Additionally, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota filed a claim but didn't follow proper procedures, according to another order Lamberth filed on Tuesday. He gave the tribe ten days to correct its mistake.

Interior spokespersons had no immediate comment on the latest court action. Attorneys from the Washington, D.C., law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, which is handling some of the tribal cases, did not return calls seeking comment.

Relevant Documents:
Assiniboine and Sioux Tribe of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation v. Norton (7/23) | Griles Declaration (3/27)

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