Interior to respond to court report

Department of Interior

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The Interior Department soon will respond to this week's accusations from a court-appointed official who claimed that Secretary Gale Norton and other agency officials violated federal law and breached trust duties to American Indians.

"We're used to faulty advised reports from the special master, and this is another one," said Interior spokesman Dan DuBray. "It seems to be fully consistent with that previous pattern. It's faulty and it's biased."

Interior has up to 10 days to answer the allegations, and the agency will submit a highly detailed response, according to officials. The agency also will continue its efforts to have court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran disqualified on the grounds of flawed reporting and a perceived bias against Interior.

Balaran — a court official appointed by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth — stated that Interior illegally destroyed computerized information concerning rights-of-way (ROWs) fees for oil and gas companies that operate pipelines across Navajo lands.

The 39-page report also claimed that Interior has cheated the Navajo Nation by allowing contracts with oil and gas companies that undervalued Navajo lands from 20 to 200 times less than comparable lands owned by non-American Indians and other tribes.

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

Department officials say they will strongly counter those claims and provide a clearer look into the process of appraising Indian land.

"The appraisal process on Indian lands is quite complex, but we believe that an independent, objective and most importantly unbiased review will find that Interior's appraisal activity is reasonable and appropriate," DuBray said.

Balaran indicated the 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 comparable lands.

Balaran issued his report Aug. 20 after a March 6 site visit to the appraisal service office in Gallup, N.M., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Navajo Realty Office in Window Rock, Ariz.

Dennis Gingold, lead counsel for the American Indian plaintiffs in the case of Cobell v. Norton, joined Balaran in his criticism of Interior. "For Norton to approve contracts that cheat Navajo trust beneficiaries and to permit critical records to be destroyed is unconscionable," Gingold said. "By allowing the destruction of these trust records, Norton has ensured that a complete and accurate accounting is impossible."

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