Interior official calls it quits

Two months after a federal judge held him in civil contempt, the Interior Department's top Indian Affairs official has announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31.

"The constraints imposed by ever-present litigation have taken their toll," said Neal McCaleb, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, in a Nov. 21 statement on his decision to retire from public service.

McCaleb, 67, will leave a department embroiled in legal action over the mismanagement of American Indian-owned lands held in trust for more than 100 years by the Interior Department, which is responsible for leasing the properties and processing payments. Although his job encompasses a slew of issues, trust reform has eclipsed his work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"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," he said.

McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, helped launch a summit on economic development for American Indians and Alaskan natives - his chief cause - in September. Even there, however, reporters hounded him on the case, which precedes his tenure at BIA.

A group of beneficiaries filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, alleging that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate as much as $10 billion is lost or missing.

In 1999, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth held Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Grover and Treasury Department Secretary Robert Rubin in civil contempt. Most recently, Lamberth added Interior Secretary Gale Norton and McCaleb to the list, finding them "unfit trustee-delegates." Norton and McCaleb have appealed. Meanwhile, Interior officials must submit a revised strategy for trust reform to the U.S. court by Jan. 6, 2003. The trial resumes May 1, 2003.

In a separate statement, Norton said she accepted McCaleb's decision with regret and a sense of understanding.

"Neal serves as an extremely valuable member of my leadership team, and he will be very difficult to replace," she said. "Thanks to his expertise, leadership and personal drive, we have made significant accomplishments for which he deserves great credit."

McCaleb plans to enjoy his retirement in the company of his wife, children and 14 grandchildren. He will continue to provide advice and consultation on tribal economic development.

His career includes eight years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and more than 10 as the state's first transportation secretary. The Senate confirmed him as assistant secretary on June 29, 2001.

He joins a list of other Interior officials who have left the department in the wake of the trust reform battle.

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