Indian rights case hints at U.S.cover-up 
By James Warren 
Washington Bureau,2669,CTT-14543743,FF.html
December 5, 1999 

WASHINGTON--The Justice Department is asking a judge to delay release of a report on a 
possible government cover-up of destroyed evidence in a major Native-American rights 
case, claiming it could "erode confidence" in several agencies and cause "severe 
damage" to the reputations of seven Treasury Department officials.

The unusual filing came late Friday and seeks to temporarily block a special master's 
report requested by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who oversees a case that could 
force the government to pay hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars to 

The case involves trust accounts set up by the government in the 1880s to compensate 
Indians for the use of their land, which the government leased to oil, timber and 
other companies for a fee. The government was breaking up reservations, giving 
individual Indians 80 to 160 acres each but not trusting them to handle their own 
financial affairs.

It thus became trustee of the lands, with the lease money going to the Treasury 
Department, which was obligated to send money back on a regular basis to individuals 
and tribes.

There are thought to be about 300,000 accounts and about $300 million a year paid to 
the Bureau of Indians Affairs for leases on individual Indians' land.

But though there was no competitive bidding on the leases, and they probably have 
brought in only a fraction of their real worth, the fact that nobody is quite sure is 
one of several issues critical to the current litigation.

The government has admitted major problems with the accounts, including the lack of an 
accounts-receivable system. It also has lost track of at least 40,000 Indians owed 
Treasury Department checks but whose addresses can't be found. Large troves of 
documents have been lost in fires, floods-- even in an abandoned salt mine.

Those admissions, and others, led Lamberth to hold Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt 
and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt for delays in producing 
documents. During a subsequent trial on the substance of the dispute, Lamberth left 
the impression he might rule against the government unless a settlement could be 
reached, and has appointed a law professor to try to mediate an agreement.

Earlier, he chose another lawyer to serve as special master to look into the 
government's admitted destruction of 162 boxes of documents at a warehouse in 
Suitland, Md., between Nov. 23, 1998, and Jan. 27, 1999.

The destruction apparently was part of a housecleaning. When a Treasury official 
realized some of the documents were potentially related to the case, she ordered the 
destruction stopped. While the judge was at that time considering his ruling in the 
just-concluded Babbitt-Rubin contempt hearing, he was not told about the destruction 
until May.

With the special master's report finished and expected to be released as early as 
Monday, the government went back to court Friday and said it deserved a chance to 
respond before release. The fact that it filed the request suggested the report's 
findings would be embarrassing.

"The public dissemination of findings later found erroneous or in need of modification 
might unnecessarily erode confidence both in the involved federal agencies and in the 
investigation conducted by the special master," it told Lamberth.

Further, it noted that the special master, Alan Balaran, has taken statements from 
seven Treasury Department officials, all lawyers with "distinguished careers," during 
his investigation. "Public dissemination of the special master's report before their 
objections are considered by the court could result in severe and unfair damage to 
their professional reputations."

A source close to the plaintiffs said Sunday that they were surprised at the 
government's filing and were contemplating filing their own response, but expected the 
judge to release the report Monday.

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine 
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           Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit)

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