Interior Department seeks removal of court-appointed monitor of Indian money

Monday, June 17th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Government attorneys want a judge to call off a court watchdog who has harshly criticized the Interior Department's management of hundreds of millions of dollars of American Indian money.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton's attorneys said court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III is biased and has overstepped his legal bounds.

``He has failed to respect the constitutional and statutory limits of this court's jurisdiction ... and has demonstrated a lack of impartiality that requires his disqualification from further participation in this case,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert D. McCallum Jr. wrote in a filing submitted late Friday.

Kieffer was appointed in April 2001 by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth _ with the consent of the Interior Department _ to monitor the department's progress in fixing mismanagement of royalties from Indian lands.

Kieffer's scathing reports were the basis for a 29-day contempt trial against Norton earlier this year. Lamberth is considering holding Norton in contempt for failing to comply with the court-ordered overhaul of the trust fund and accounting of what the Indians are owed.

The Interior Department is responsible for collecting royalties from oil and gas mining, timber harvesting, grazing and other uses of Indian land and distributing the money to the landowners.

But for more than a century, the money was sloppily managed, with unknown amounts of money misappropriated, stolen or never collected. A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 300,000 Indian account holders says the department squandered tens of billions of dollars.

The attorney for the Indians, Dennis Gingold, said the attack on Kieffer is an act of desperation.

``They've declared war on the court, which is extraordinary,'' said Gingold. ``They know they're going to lose on the merits so they attack the individuals involved.''

Kieffer did not return phone messages.