Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Nov 15, 2002
Interior Dodges Civil Contempt:
Court Describes Department as ‘Reprehensible’

By Jean Pagano

United States District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled this week on a Motion for Order to Show Cause in Cobell v. Secretary of the Interior et al. (Cobell). Judge Lamberth rejected the plaintiffs’ motion by overruling the Special Master’s recommendation that Secretary Norton and her counsel be held in civil contempt for their conduct regarding the Special Master’s Anti-Reprisal Order of February 8, 2001.

The Court found that the Department of the Interior’s reaction to the Special Master’s Anti-Reprisal Order was seriously deficient: “The Court finds that while Interior’s initial reaction to the Special Master’s Anti-Reprisal Order was reprehensible and came perilously close to ‘deliberate or reckless disregard,’ their subsequent actions to remedy these deficiencies mitigate against such a finding.”

The Special Master’s Anti-Reprisal Order contained three provisions. They are: 1) that all BIA employees may contact the office of the Office of the Special Master for any and all issues relating to the protection and preservation of Individual Indian Money (IIM) records; (2) that all such communication will be kept strictly confidential; and (3) that any employee that contacts the Special Master to report on matters relating to IIM records will be protected from retaliation pursuant to the Court’s order date May 21, 1999.

The Court, in its denial stated, “…while the Court possesses grave misgivings regarding Interior’s initial ‘good faith’ in the matter of the Anti-Reprisal Order, its subsequent efforts to remedy its own deficiencies constituted “substantial compliance” with the Anti-Reprisal Order.” According to the law, ‘substantial compliance’ negates a finding of contempt.

This issue at hand is that the Department of the Interior is the trustee for millions of dollars worth of IIM accounts and even though billions of dollars have passed through the Department of Interior as trustee, perhaps $10 billion are missing or misappropriated. Judge Lamberth has required Interior to provide an accounting of all IIMs. Yet to date, the Department of Interior under Gale Norton and her predecessor Bruce Babbitt have been very slow in complying. The Court has had such difficulty in getting results from the Department of the Interior that it has appointed a ‘Special Master’ and a ‘Special Master-Monitor’ to help it bring Interior into compliance. The Department is now asking the people of the United States to pay for its legal costs in defending itself from Cobell and the affiliated motions arising from it.

Judge Lamberth cites United States v. Ryan, 810 F.2d. 650-655 (7th Circuit 1987), in writing, “The Court observes that, notwithstanding Interior’s success at purging itself of civil contempt, its initial spotty compliance with the Anti-Reprisal Order may support a finding of criminal contempt.”

<> Furthermore, Judge Lamberth states that he finds it troubling that the Interior Department, under Gale Norton, refused to comply with the Anti-Reprisal order in the first place.
<>Judge Lamberth closes his most recent decision with the following warning: “Although the Court will stay its hand in this instance, future attempts to subvert the Special Master’s orders or to retaliate against witnesses will neither be tolerated nor met with such charity.”