A top Interior Department official who a federal judge said deceived him about the agency's failure to reform a trust fund for Native Americans announced his retirement yesterday.
Neal A. McCaleb, 67, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said he was proud of a 35-year track record of trying to build "real and lasting economic opportunities for American Indian people."
But McCaleb said that his efforts during the Bush administration were hampered by a long-running class-action lawsuit filed by Indian plaintiffs to secure an accounting of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from Native American lands held in trust by the government. The suit began before his appointment to the department.
"Unfortunately, the litigation has taken first priority in too many activities, thus distracting attention from the other important goals that could provide more long-term benefits for Indian Country," said McCaleb, who will leave Dec. 31.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton accepted his retirement "with great reluctance, deep regret and a sense of personal loss."
"As a member of my team, he never wavered in his loyalty to the principles, needs and goals of American Indians, Alaska natives and this administration," she said.
The Interior Department's inability to keep track of how much is owed each of more than 300,000 Indians ranks as one of the biggest accounting failures in government history.
In September, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held McCaleb and Norton in contempt, ruling that they had failed to abide by a three-year-old court order to begin a historical accounting of the trust fund. Lamberth found also that they concealed the department's actions on the project, did not inform the court of a computer programs failure, filed false quarterly reports about reform efforts and lied about computer security of trust fund data.
Lamberth held President Bill Clinton's interior and treasury secretaries, Bruce Babbitt and Robert E. Rubin, in contempt in the same case three years ago.
Dennis M. Gingold, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was happy to see McCaleb go.
"It's unfortunate that we couldn't get someone to take a position as assistant secretary who was honorable and understood his obligations," Gingold said. "The fact he's leaving does not mean he's not going to continue to be part of this litigation. I assure you he will be."
McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw tribal nation, was appointed by President Bush in April 2001 and confirmed by the Senate on June 29 of that year.
He had served as secretary of transportation for the State of Oklahoma. He also served four terms in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.