The Clinton administration has spent much time and money defending itself against a class action lawsuit alleging that government agencies have mismanaged billions of dollars in Indian trust funds. Yesterday a judge ordered it to spend $625,000 more--to pay legal bills accrued by the Indians.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said he imposed the penalties because government officials and lawyers repeatedly disobeyed his orders to turn over records critical to the Indians' case. As a result, he said, the government caused the Indians' attorneys to waste thousands of hours seeking documents.
The ruling was a follow-up to an order issued by Lamberth in February that found Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover and then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt of court. The judge held them responsible for the failure to locate and produce records concerning trust fund accounts held by the government on behalf of Indians. He said government lawyers misled him by insisting the records were produced.
Yesterday Lamberth said he regretted that he could not hold the officials and lawyers personally responsible for the costs, adding, "The court is aware of the unfortunate consequences of today's ruling on American taxpayers.
"In this judge's view, the American taxpayers should not continue to be forced to bear the burden of these types of misdeeds. Instead, as is the case in the private sector, these attorneys and officials themselves should bear individual responsibility for their actions," he said in a 45-page opinion.
The Native American Rights Fund filed the lawsuit in 1996, alleging that the government has lost track of billions of dollars in trust funds because of mismanagement that dates back more than 100 years. Lamberth recently presided over a trial to determine what to do with roughly 350,000 trust accounts held by individual Indians. He has yet to announce a ruling but in court has openly explored the possibility of naming an outside expert to oversee reforms.
The trust funds were established to compensate Indians for use of their land. The government is supposed to manage the trust accounts and pass along royalties from the sale of petroleum, timber and other natural resources. Babbitt testified for two days during the trial, saying that he was committed to overhauling the system so Indians can finally get an accounting.
In yesterday's ruling, Lamberth analyzed roughly $2.3 million in expenses submitted by the Indians' legal team. He determined that only a portion of those costs stemmed directly from the records disputes. However, Keith Harper, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund, said the Indians can seek additional reimbursement if they ultimately prevail in the trial.