A federal judge yesterday ordered the head of the Justice Department's civil division and five other government attorneys to pay personal sanctions for their tactics in defending the Interior Department in a long-running lawsuit alleging chronic mismanagement of an Indian trust fund.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Assistant Attorney General Robert D. McCallum -- a friend of President Bush and the nominee for the No. 3 spot in the Justice Department -- and subordinate attorneys to pay sanctions for "attempting to cover up" lies and misrepresentations to the judge.
The sanctions require McCallum and the others to pay legal fees, expenses and other costs of the Indians' lawyers for having to re-depose a Bureau of Indian Affairs official because of "obstruction" by Justice Department attorneys, the order says.
Those expenses will total "much more than $10,000," said Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, who is representing the plaintiffs.
Lamberth ruled that the government attorneys could apply to the Justice Department to be reimbursed for their payments. It was not clear yesterday how the department would respond.
"We have every confidence in the integrity and professionalism of our Justice Department attorneys and their appropriate handling of this case," said Barbara Comstock, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
The sanctions come six weeks after Lamberth referred five of the six attorneys to a court ethics panel for disciplinary hearings for mailing out financial statements to some of the 300,000 Indian plaintiffs without the court's consent.
Lamberth, appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, has held three Cabinet-level members in two administrations guilty of civil contempt charges in the case and imposed more than $700,000 in sanctions against the government.
Pending sanctions for civil contempt against Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and other Interior officials may total more than $1.5 million, but Lamberth has not imposed the final amount.
Until yesterday, all of the sanctions had been against the office of each official, not in their personal capacity, meaning taxpayers paid the sanctions.
In the most recent incident, government attorneys told Lamberth on Dec. 13 that Donna Erwin, BIA's acting special trustee working on trust fund reform, was based in New Mexico and was too busy to come to Washington to be deposed by lawyers for the Indians.
Less than 72 hours later, the Indians' lawyers saw Erwin at a BIA meeting in Washington.
Government lawyers told Lamberth there was no deception, merely a mix-up in busy schedules. But Erwin testified "we told everyone" her travel schedule.
When an attorney for the Indians asked her if government attorneys had misrepresented her case, Sandra P. Spooner, a Justice attorney, refused to let her answer, citing attorney-client privilege.
The attorneys liable for the sanctions are McCallum, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart E. Schiffer and Justice department attorneys Spooner, J. Christopher Kohn, John T. Stemplewicz and Timothy E. Curley.