An angry federal judge denounced Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on Friday after officials in her agency weighed cutting off federal checks to American Indians suing the government for past royalties.
Attorneys for Indians seeking billions of dollars in the suit asked for an emergency hearing before the judge, citing Interior Department memos directing a temporary halt to all communications with Indians. One memo said some payments had already been stopped, and another said they might have to be stopped.
"Has Secretary Norton decided to declare war on the Indians in this litigation?" U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth barked at Sandra Spooner, the Justice Department lawyer representing Norton and her department. "It comes across as absolute, direct retaliation."
Attorneys for Norton told the judge that the checks were not and would not be stopped.
The department sent out the correspondence Thursday, a day after Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to keep the Indians informed about the lawsuit anytime it tries to sell or exchange their lands or other assets.
The judge, however, also found that the department had violated his December 2002 order not to communicate with Indians in any way that interferes with their rights under the lawsuit.
Dennis Gingold, a lawyer representing the Indians, told Lamberth that "the government is using the two orders as a sword to harm the beneficiaries."
"There was nothing in the order that justified withholding the checks. It's a willful attempt to undermine the integrity of this litigation," Gingold said. "The people who need their money the most are being hurt."
That the department might have used one of his orders to justify stopping the payments drew an angry response from Lamberth.
"To stop them, and to say you're doing it because of my order, is a flat-out lie. A lie!" he bristled. "I've never said stop any checks. It's Interior that does that and blames it on the court."
Spooner said that despite the correspondence, Norton had personally directed that no checks be stopped. "There is no indication that any checks are being held up," the lawyer told the judge.
At Spooner's request, Lamberth changed the wording of his order slightly. He still gazed skeptically down at Spooner. "Then what excuse will there be for what you're doing?" Lamberth asked sarcastically.
A spokesman for the department said after the hearing that officials wanted the clarification to make sure no payments would be affected.
The lawsuit was filed in 1996 on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indians. It accuses the Interior Department of mismanaging, misplacing or stealing billions of dollars from royalties on oil, gas, timber and grazing on American Indian lands since 1887.
Congress created the Indian trust fund to manage revenue from parcels designated for each tribal member, but the money was often uncollected, lost or stolen. The department has spent more than $600 million since 1996 trying to fix the trust fund.