Trust funds still causing trouble
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APRIL 11, 2001

While Secretary of Interior Gale Norton was releasing her department's fiscal year 2002 budget, the plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit were asking a federal judge to move forward with a request to place her in contempt of court.

Still relatively new to the job, Norton has repeatedly pushed trust reform as one of her top priorities at the Department of Interior. To meet this goal, her budget calls for about $165 million dollars to be distributed to trust reform projects at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee.

But the plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet Nation banker Elouise Cobell, haven't been satisfied with the Secretary's recent performance or pledges. Alleging she has failed to correct a number of problems which have plagued the government's attempt to fix more than 100 years of financial mismanagement, they filed two motions on Monday seeking sanctions against her.

Among the problems is the status of Mona Infield, a BIA computer analyst who was exiled to home duty after criticizing the government's reform effort. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident has been drawing her $80,000 annual salary for more than a year now.

Efforts by Norton and her lawyers to settle Infield's claims of retaliation have so far failed. At least two recent offers have been rejected as deadlines for potential termination of Infield come and go.

Along these lines, the plaintiffs also allege Norton has failed to disseminate properly a court order barring retaliation against employees who provide information related to destruction of trust fund documents. To bolster their claims, they point to a memo in which Department of Justice lawyers acknowledge a number of problems related to records maintenance.

Among the examples cited in the memo, made public on Tuesday, are trust fund documents being stored in a trailer and a wooden cabinet filled with records left outside a garage. In both instances, the documents were exposed to the weather.

But going further, the DOJ said that documents throughout Indian Country are stored in such poor conditions that the Interior office charged with records maintenance has had to change how it does its job. "[B]ecause historically there was no consistent funding for a solid and continuous records management program, there are massive amounts of records, both trust and non-trust, being stored under these [adverse] conditions," wrote a government lawyer.

The Office of Trust Records (OTR) now responds immediately to records found in "imminent danger," while evaluating other documents in "jeopardy or potential jeopardy" on a case by case basis, said the DOJ in a letter to the court's special master Alan Balaran.

Balaran has recommended that US District Judge Royce Lamberth hold a contempt trial to determine if a number of Interior employees retaliated against Infield. Lamberth has yet to decide if he will hold one.

Lamberth also hasn't agreed to add Norton, or Sharon Blackwell, the Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs who took over the job last year, to the list of officials facing sanctions. The plaintiffs earlier asked Hilda Manuel, Blackwell's predecessor who was said to rule the BIA with an "iron fist," be considered in contempt as well.

Get Recent Documents:
Letter: Condition of BIA Documents (4/10)
Motion: Norton has continued retaliation against BIA employee Mona Infield (4/9)
Motion: Norton be considered contempt of court (4/9)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Only on Indianz.Com:
The Trust Fund Fiasco (Smoke Signals 1999)

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