WASHINGTON – A federal judge in a lawsuit over American Indian money allegedly lost by the government lambasted the "repugnant" behavior of government attorneys -- including one up for the No. 3 spot in the Justice Department.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the government lawyers tried to cover up misrepresentations they had made in court last December and penalized them by ordering them to pay the fees for the Indians' attorneys out of their own pocket.
"The conduct of defense counsel in this matter makes a mockery of all that the Department of Justice stands for," Lamberth wrote in a ruling Wednesday
Among those sanctioned by Lamberth is Assistant Attorney General Robert B. McCallum, who is currently the head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, but has been nominated by President Bush to be associate attorney general, the third-highest spot in the department.
"We have every confidence in the integrity and professionalism of our Justice Department attorneys and their appropriate handling of this case," said department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock. "We are reviewing Judge Lamberth's ruling."
Lamberth is presiding in a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of American Indians who claim the Interior Department squandered billions of dollars in oil, gas and timber royalties from Indian land that the department was assigned by Congress to manage.
The plaintiffs' estimates of the losses dating back to 1887 reach $137 billion, including interest. The department acknowledges management problems, but says nowhere near that much money was lost.
During depositions in the case, Donna Erwin, the acting special trustee, a position created by Congress to oversee the trust reforms, was asked if she believed her attorneys had lied during an earlier hearing, but Justice Department attorney Sandra Spooner objected, citing attorney-client privilege.
Lamberth blasted Spooner's claim as frivolous and said it "obstructed a legitimate inquiry into whether her co-counsel had lied to the court."
Last September, Lamberth held Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court for concealing shortcomings in repairing the management of the Indian money. The department has appealed that ruling. He had also held her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, and Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt in the case.
And in December, Lamberth asked a disciplinary board of judges for the D.C. District Court to consider punishing McCallum, Spooner and other attorneys for allowing communications to be sent to Indians involved in the lawsuit, in violation of the judge's orders.