Court criticizes Norton for trust fund statements
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Last Updated: 6 p.m. EDT.

A federal judge today criticized the Department of Interior for sending out trust fund statements to the guardians of 1,200 Indian children without first seeking his approval.

At a hearing in federal court this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said he was "disturbed" by the government's actions. "Isn't the court in control?" he asked.

Phil Seligman, a Department of Justice attorney, defended the mailings that went out to minor members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona last month. He said Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is required to provide the information to Indian beneficiaries.

"We weren't trying to go behind the court's back," he protested.

But Dennis Gingold, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, said the incident was yet another example of the government's attempt to mislead the court and Indian Country.

"If Enron did this, it would be mail fraud," he told Lamberth.

Gingold asked Lamberth to enter a temporary restraining order to prevent future statements from being distributed. According to The Arizona Republic, the Interior was planning on sending two waves of statements in the coming weeks.

But Seligman voluntarily agreed to stop the mailings on behalf of the government, thus preventing Lamberth from imposing another order in the lengthy and bitter case.

Lamberth further ordered Norton's attorneys to explain a number of key issues regarding the statements. He was troubled by a new Interior policy -- approved by Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles without public comment -- that "extinguishes" the rights of Indian account holders within 60 days.

"I don't understand how that can be," said Lamberth.

The statements in question purport to represent an historical accounting of a judgment fund. The department said it was able to reconcile the money and its records matched the account balances.

The judgment fund accounts differ from the oil, gas, timber and other revenue-based activity that characterize the Cobell suit. Six years into the case, the Interior has been unable to perform an historical accounting of any of these type of accounts.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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