- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

A federal judge says the Justice Department engaged in a cover-up in a lawsuit involving missing American Indian trust funds kept by the Interior Department, accusing the department of obstructing a legitimate inquiry into whether government attorneys lied to the court.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, in an order handed down Wednesday, said Justice lawyers repeatedly made "groundless assertions" of attorney-client privilege, directed a government official "not to answer proper questions" and blocked an investigation to determine if the department's co-counsel "had lied to the court."
Judge Lamberth described the suspected obstruction as "repugnant."
"It has been observed that government attorneys should model the ideals of integrity and ethics rather than attempt to circumvent them," he said in a blistering 31-page order. "Instead, the conduct of defense counsel in this matter makes a mockery of all that the Department of Justice stands for."
Judge Lamberth also targeted what he called "superiors at the Justice Department," whom he accused of condoning improper behavior by the government attorneys and filing a 19-page "meritless memorandum" defending their conduct.
"The Justice Department has attempted to cover up whether its own attorneys have yet again deliberately provided false information to this court," he said. "The lack of judgment demonstrated by this action suggests to the court that something has gone seriously awry in the Justice Department's handling of this litigation."
Named in the order are Justice Department lawyers Sandra Spooner and Robert B. McCallum, an assistant attorney general who heads the department's civil division. Mr. McCallum has been nominated by President Bush as associate attorney general, the Justice Department's third-highest position.
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said the department was reviewing Judge Lamberth's order, but noted it has "every confidence in the integrity and professionalism of our Justice Department attorneys and their appropriate handling of this case."
Judge Lamberth ordered the Justice lawyers to "personally pay to plaintiffs all reasonable expenses, including attorney's fees," in order to schedule a new deposition in the case.
The judge is presiding over a lawsuit claiming that the Interior Department mismanaged billions of dollars in Indian trust funds held in 300,000 individual accounts and 2,000 tribal accounts. He has ordered Interior officials to account for the funds, saying records provided to the court showed the money was so badly mishandled that the government had no idea how much was missing or where it could be found.
The money was collected from oil, gas and timber royalties paid to the Indians but managed by the government.
In his order, Judge Lamberth said Ms. Spooner blocked the testimony of Donna Erwin, acting special trustee in the lawsuit, on whether government lawyers made misrepresentations to the court. Ms. Spooner had cited attorney-client privilege and questioned whether the testimony was relevant to the case.
"The court finds troubling defendants' assertion that it is irrelevant whether or not their counsel may have lied to the court during a formal hearing," the judge said. "The court is also surprised to hear defendant's claim that a question that directly bears on the credibility of a key witness … is irrelevant."
In September, Judge Lamberth held Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in contempt for engaging for concealing documents and making false and misleading statements. He said the department had "indisputably proven" it was either unwilling or unable to administer competently the Indian trust fund. The department has appealed the ruling.
Interior, which manages the trust-fund accounts, has given several reasons why they are unavailable including that some have been so tainted with rodent droppings that handling them would be hazardous.

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