Judge accuses Interior of 'deception'
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The federal judge overseeing the trust fund exploded in court on Wednesday, threatening to hold Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in contempt for failing to make millions of dollars in long-delayed payments to Indian landowners.

In some of his strongest criticism to date, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth accused the Department of Interior and its attorneys of providing misleading information about the computer shutdown that has crippled work for more than two months. On December 5, he ordered the department to protect Indian trust data and directed the government to work with his court to fix known security vulnerabilities.

But he was clearly upset the process has failed to ensure that thousands of beneficiaries to the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust receive their funds on time. Singling out Norton and Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles for their "gall," he said it was "beyond his belief" the pair have tied delays in disbursement to court investigator Alan Balaran.

"The Secretary isn't helping herself when she sticks her head in the sand," he said.

Lamberth also blasted the department and its attorneys for not living up to an agreement to get the computer systems up and running again. Although the document, which was drafted by the government, includes specific measures to get payments to Indian Country, he accused them of ignoring the temporary provisions.

"I have them leeway there and they wouldn't even do that," he said.

Slamming government attorneys for being "deceptive," Lamberth finally hinted he would sanction Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb for the debacle. "It's going to have an effect for contempt," he told Scott Harris of the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C.

"I don't understand why all this deception is going on," he later told Sandra Spooner of the Department of Justice.

Spooner attempted to explain the situation and told Lamberth that making payments to tribes and individual Indians has been the government's "number one priority." She said $2.5 million in general assistance funds and $2.5 million in leasing and per capita payments have been distributed.

"To the extent you've been told checks haven't gone out," she said, "that's not true."

But Spooner acknowledged at least $4.5 million in oil and gas royalties are tied up. Once a key Minerals Management Service (MMS) computer system has been restored, she said "payments will go to the Indians before they go to non-Indians."

Lamberth wasn't impressed by the status update. "That information is quite deceptive," he charged, saying he was "troubled" by Norton's February 6 testimony to a House committee because she tied delays to his court.

Lamberth criticized Griles for his appearance before a Senate committee as well. On February 12, Griles said the department would calculate oil and gas payments by hand because he was "tired" of waiting for approval by the court.

A press release authorized by the department the same day claimed the funds would be distributed "now." Department officials and attorneys admitted yesterday none have been made.

"I don't understand the continued delay," Lamberth said. "I just don't get it."

Spooner promised to deliver a written update to the court no later than today, when Lamberth hears closing arguments in Norton's contempt trial. After 28 days, testimony concluded yesterday with National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall on the stand.

Hall, who also serves as chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, testified he and about 6,000 members of the haven't received their leasing checks, despite government claims to the contrary. According to Hall, the local Bureau of Indian Affairs agency tells him "We're still trying to get [checks] out."

"I heard that last week, and the week before that, and the week before that," he said.

Lamberth is expected to issue his findings in the trial in the coming weeks.

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

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