Judge wants Interior secretary to testify on Indian trust fund

By Daniel Pulliam

A federal judge has told Interior Secretary Gale Norton to appear in court to defend her agency's actions in a lawsuit brought by a group of Native Americans seeking lost royalties from a trust fund.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in his order that providing personal testimony is the only way Norton could convince him that she did not retaliate against Native Americans in October by halting payments from a federal trust fund.

In October, Lamberth concluded that Norton acted as if the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to cut off all contact with Native Americans regarding the trust fund, including withholding checks to beneficiaries, in response to a September order stopping the sale of Indian land.

"What is clear is that the secretary, in a fit of pique and perhaps anger at both the court and the plaintiffs for the issuance of the Sept. 29 order, simply retaliated against the Indian beneficiaries under the thin disguise of a preposterous and facially false 'interpretation' of the court's order," Lamberth wrote in October.

In his new order, Lamberth wrote, "the only evidence that might persuade the court to reassess its determination about the secretary's actions following the Oct. 1 status conference would be direct evidence of the secretary's intent. Such evidence, of course, can only be provided by the secretary herself."

Norton's spokesman, Dan DuBray, would not say whether Norton would appear in court, stating that a response will be made "to the judge in the venue of the court, not the media." He said Norton has taken "great steps" in light of the Lamberth's order to make sure checks were delivered.

Interior has 10 days from the Feb. 7 order to respond to Lamberth's invitation for Norton to testify. The Justice Department has asked Lamberth to reconsider his conclusion that Norton retaliated against Indian beneficiaries.

The judge's request that Norton testify is the latest development in an eight-year-old lawsuit, Cobell v. Norton, brought by Native American groups. The suit involves funds paid to Interior by groups using Indian lands for oil, gas and mineral mining. BIAis supposed to distribute the money to Native Americans through trust accounts. Native American groups contend that the money has not been properly managed and they are owed billions of dollars in damages.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the suit, which involves more than 500,000 trust beneficiaries, said if Norton does not testify, "we'll know the truth" about her involvement in stopping the checks.

The lawsuit has resulted in unusual developments, including a hired hacker's discovery that Indian trust data and account information held in Interior computers were subject to manipulation, resulting in Lamberth's order to sever Interior's Internet connection, which a higher court ruled in error.