Indian trust messages deleted

A senior official at the Interior Department deleted e-mail messages containing American Indian trust information — in violation of court orders and federal law — and poor policy and lack of training are partially to blame, according to a recent report.

Neal McCaleb has come under fire for "a possible error in judgment" last fall, when he was the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. In a report released last week, Special Master Alan Balaran, a court-appointed fact finder, concluded that McCaleb destroyed individual trust records with impunity.

"Simply stated, McCaleb proved to be as complacent with the truth as he was with his fiduciary responsibilities," Balaran wrote in the report, which recommended that the court take additional action against McCaleb.

In September 2002, a federal judge held McCaleb and Interior Secretary Gale Norton in civil contempt, finding them "unfit trustee-delegates." Two months later, McCaleb announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31, 2002.

By law, McCaleb was required to retain trust-related information, including e-mails, Balaran noted. However, he deleted such correspondence when his inbox got full, assuming that his administrative assistant was saving them, according to his account in the report.

Based on interviews with McCaleb's assistant and another colleague, Balaran discredited that story. Further, he found that McCaleb had no previous experience with trust or fiduciary law or with the e-mail system used in his office at Interior.

"The fact remains that [Interior] permitted its most senior [Bureau of Indian Affairs] official to assume his fiduciary responsibilities without any trust training, sanctioned the use of a data recapture policy that threatened the integrity of trust information, and failed to impose a training regimen that ensured the retention and preservation of trust communications," Balaran concluded. "The current state of affairs can best be described as chaotic."

Interior has leased American Indian-owned properties and processed revenue earned from farming, drilling and other exploits for more than 100 years. A group of beneficiaries filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, claiming that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate that as much as $10 billion is lost or missing and have asked the court to place the trust in receivership out of the department's control. The trial resumes May 1.

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