Indians' lawyers will seek second contempt finding against Babbitt


Friday, November 19th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


After finding records piled in a "garbage heap" on a North Dakota reservation, lawyers for a group of American Indians returned to federal court Friday vowing to ask a judge to once again hold Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in contempt.

"Bring it on," responded a lawyer representing the Interior Department.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth had held Babbitt and two other federal officials in contempt earlier this year for failing to turn over documents in the Indian trust fund case.

He ordered the federal government to pay more than $600,000 in fees to the Indians' lawyers.

The Indians are suing over mismanagement of more than 300,000 trust accounts for individual Indians worth more than $500 million. Both sides agree the accounts have been mismanaged for decades -- suffering from inconsistent or nonexistent record keeping, poorinvestment choices and lax oversight. The Indians argue that mismanagement has cost them billions of dollars in lost revenue.

A court-appointed watchdog in the case discovered piles of documents stashed in a shed during a Nov. 1 visit to the Bureau of
Indian Affairs office at the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The supervisor of that office had insisted that all records were stored in the main office, but a secretary told the investigator about the shed.

"These documents were maintained in deplorable condition amidst gasoline canisters, tires, machinery and other debris," Alan Balaran, the watchdog, wrote in a report to Lamberth last week.

Balaran said he was disturbed by the BIA's "callous disregard for these records" and its "duplicitous denial" that they were in the shed.

Lawyers for the Indians told Lamberth Friday that the Interior Department and its lawyers cannot be trusted to keep and turn over documents, even after the contempt citations against Babbitt, BIA head Kevin Gover and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

"We seem to be in the same situation as before, where the orders of this court are not being complied with," said Dennis Gingold, a lawyer for the Indians. "They have a new team of lawyers, but nothing's changed."

Justice Department lawyers representing the Interior Department bristled at Gingold's remarks.

"If counsel (for the Indians) would like to make (contempt) charges against us, I'd like to see them," Justice Department lawyer Phillip Brooks said. "I'm tired of being disparaged ... I
don't know what to say, other than, 'Bring it on."'

Gingold said later he took that as a challenge to ask Lamberth to hold Babbitt and Gover in contempt again. Gingold said he would
make that request "as soon as possible."

The request could be bad news for Babbitt and Gover if Lamberth agrees with the Indians. In his February contempt ruling, Lamberth warned the officials "to make sure that their respective departments' actions live up to their words."

"For if they do not, the defendants will suffer consequences far greater than those being handed down today," Lamberth wrote.

Brooks and fellow Justice Department lawyer Charles Findlay said BIA officials had ordered the records removed from the shed. They
said no documents had been lost.

"We recognize the problem. We are attacking it," Findlay told Lamberth.

That's what the Interior Department said after the contempt citation, Gingold said. He said Congress had appropriated $15 million this summer to defend the trust fund case, but that money had not prevented the situation in North Dakota.

"Even when they have had the money, they have resisted complying with the court orders," said Keith Harper, another lawyer for the Indians.