Interior contempt motion filed

The plaintiffs in a long-running case over the Interior Department's mismanagement of American Indian money have asked a federal judge to consider additional contempt charges against government officials for destroying electronic evidence.

"It's another example of obfuscation, deceit and cover-up," said Philip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, "the kind we run into so often in this case."

According to the motion, the "plaintiffs believe that there is no doubt that this court can and should hold defendants and their counsel in civil and, where appropriate, criminal contempt."

The court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran reported in July that Interior officials had repeatedly and willfully destroyed individual Indian trust documents, including e-mails.

The plaintiffs, in their motion, "concur with the findings of the master that the pervasive spoliation of evidence, and the repeated misrepresentations of defendants and their counsel, constitute a fraud on this court."

Interior has held American-Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenues earned from farming and drilling.

The motion comes a month after a contempt trial for Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb ended in U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's court. A decision is pending.

A group of American Indians filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, alleging that mismanagement has made it impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate as much as $10 billion in lost or missing funds.

In 1999, the court directed Interior to initiate a historical accounting project. Norton and McCaleb, who also directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs, face five contempt charges that include failure to comply with the order.

Lamberth has already expressed frustration with Interior officials. In December, he ordered the agency to disconnect from the Internet after a computer security firm hacked into its systems.

Much of the department remains off-line, including the Minerals Management Service, which receives royalty money from companies that extract minerals from lands held in trust.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site was reconnected last week.

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