WASHINGTON — A federal judge Wednesday ordered Interior Secretary Gale Norton to stand trial on contempt allegations related to a long-running lawsuit accusing her of mismanagement of a billion-dollar Indian trust fund.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth set a trial date of Dec. 3 for Norton and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb to show why they shouldn’t be held in contempt.
The lawsuit stems from the mismanagement of royalties from mining, grazing, timber harvesting and other activities on 54 million acres of Indian land held in trust by the Interior Department since 1887.
Payments were supposed to be made to the Indian beneficiaries, but much of the money was lost, misappropriated, stolen or never collected.
Specifically, Norton will have to show that her office has complied with Lamberth’s 1999 order that the Interior Department piece together how much is owed to 300,000 Indians who sued the agency claiming it has squandered more than $10 billion in royalties over more than a century.
Norton also must prove that she did not file false or misleading reports about the status of the accounting and the department’s current system of tracking the Indian royalties.
Dennis Gingold, the attorney for the Indians in the class action suit, praised Lamberth’s decision to hold a trial.
"It confirms everything we’ve said about the unfitness of the secretary of interior to continue to manage the Indian trust," he said.
In 1999, Lamberth held former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt and fined them $600,000 for failing to produce documents in the case.
At an Oct. 30 hearing, Lamberth scolded the Interior Department’s lawyer and advised the lawyer to "throw yourself on the mercy of the court" rather than defending conduct he called "so clearly contemptuous."
In 1999, Lamberth ordered Interior to fix the system and account for the lost money, but the department has failed to do either despite spending $614 million on the effort, according to reports by court-appointed watchdogs.
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