WASHINGTON – A federal judge has given Interior Secretary Gale Norton (search) an ultimatum: Either appear in his court or face the prospect that he'll rule against her on an accusation that she retaliated against American Indians suing her agency for lost royalties.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth (search) gave Norton the choice in an order he issued late Monday. The judge has frequently battled with the Interior Department (search) since a class-action suit was filed in 1996 on behalf of more than 300,000 Indians seeking an accounting of trust funds set up in their behalf more than a century ago.
The government has yet to account for mismanaged oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties from Indian-owned land.
Norton's spokesman, Dan DuBray, would not say whether Norton might appear before the judge. He said Norton would respond to the judge's request through her lawyers.
Last October, Lamberth found Norton acted as if her department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (search) had to end all contact with Indians about land sales and account statements to comply with an earlier order from him. Whether that included stopping payments to Indians is in dispute.
"What is clear is that the secretary, in a fit of pique and perhaps anger ... simply retaliated against the Indian beneficiaries under the thin disguise of a preposterous and facially false `interpretation' of the court's order," he wrote.
The Justice Department had asked Lamberth to reconsider that conclusion.
Lamberth said in his latest order that "the only evidence that might persuade the court to reassess its determination ... would be direct evidence of the secretary's intent" — her own testimony before him in court.
DuBray said Norton always intended to carry out the judge's orders without stopping payments to Indians. "The secretary takes her trust responsibilities with extreme seriousness," he said.
Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, who represents the Indian plaintiffs in the suit, said Norton should come up with evidence that payments to Indians were not stopped.
"The fact is he's already made these findings," Harper said of the judge. "And he's based it on a strong record of evidence of retaliation — that the government purposefully withheld payments ... and purposefully refused to communicate."