Court appointee: Interior broke the law

Department of Interior

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton and other officials violated federal law and breached her trust duties to American Indians, according to a court-appointed official.

Special Master Alan Balaran said Interior illegally destroyed computerized information concerning rights-of-way (ROWs) fees for oil and gas companies that operate pipelines across Navajo lands.

The department cheated the Navajo Nation by allowing contracts with oil and gas companies that undervalued Navajo lands by 20 to 200 times below comparable lands owned by non-American Indians and other tribes, Balaran said.

Interior's Office of Appraisal Services "has erased, deleted and misplaced trust information vital to the valuation of ROWs running across Navajo allotted lands," Balaran wrote in his report. "It is doubtful, as a result, whether Navajo allottees are receiving fair market value for leases encumbering their land."

Balaran, a court official appointed by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, issued the report this week, after a March 6, site visit to the appraisal services office in Gallup, N.M., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Navajo Realty Office in Window Rock, Ariz.

The 39-page report states that Norton and her delegates abrogated their responsibilities to ensure that the appraisal process is conducted competently and beyond reproach.

Balaran's report indicates that Interior valued Navajo trust lands at between $25 to $40 per rod (5.5 yards) for pipeline ROWs across their land. At the same time, non-American Indians and other tribes were paid as much as $170 to $550 more per rod for the same ROWs.

Dennis Gingold, lead counsel for the American Indian plaintiffs in the case of Cobell v. Norton, stated, "This misconduct further confirms Judge Lamberth's finding that Norton is unfit [for trust management]. For Norton to approve contracts that cheat Navajo trust beneficiaries and to permit critical records to be destroyed is unconscionable."

"By allowing the destruction of these trust records, Norton has ensured that a complete and accurate accounting is impossible," Gingold continued.

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