WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Monday ordered the government to pay $7 million in legal fees and expenses in an ongoing lawsuit on behalf of half a million American Indians, saying the Interior Department had acted in bad faith in the case.
The class-action suit accuses the department of not properly compensating Indians for oil and gas production on their land, alleging government mismanagement of more than $100 billion in royalties dating back to 1887.
In the interim award of fees and expenses, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the government's actions entitle the plaintiffs an enhancement of their legal fees. The government ignored its responsibilities to the Indian beneficiaries and engaged in conduct that an appeals court concluded was unreasonable, Lamberth wrote.
The government "made numerous illegitimate representations," the judge added. A special master in the case found that the Interior Department had violated court orders by overwriting e-mail backup tapes and destroying potentially responsive evidence.
The amount of legal fees is $4.5 million and the amount of expenses is $2.5 million.
The government had opposed the award, saying the request for the money was poorly documented and excessive. The Indians had asked for $14.5 million. The judge agreed with part of the government's argument, saying there was insufficient detail to justify some of the request.
The Bush administration has become so frustrated with Lamberth that it has taken the unusual step of asking he be removed from the case.
Lamberth has held Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her Clinton-era predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, in contempt for their handling of the trust fund.
Often, an appeals court has reversed Lamberth's opinions, including the contempt order against Norton.