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A federal appeals court ordered three reports suppressed that allege the Interior Department intentionally destroyed documents in the decade-old suit by Indians who say the department mishandled billions of dollars in royalties owed to Native Americans for oil, gas, timber and minerals on their lands. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled earlier this month that former Special Master Alan Balaran’s hiring of an allegedly disgruntled former Interior Department contractor to review the department’s computerized record-keeping system left Balaran’s reports open to claims of bias. The underlying class action brought by Elouise Cobell of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation charges that Interior mishandled individual Indian Trust Accounts for 260,000 beneficiaries, depriving them of billions of dollars in royalties that the government was obligated to collect and distribute to Indians as payment for a century of mining, drilling and logging on their lands. 3,000 filings-and counting With its Dickensian history of more than 3,000 filings, 80 published opinions, seven appeals and stalled settlement negotiations, the government has asked the appeals court to take the case away from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth or to remove it from the court system altogether to allow Congress to settle it. The appeals court suppression decision, In re Kemphthorne, No. 03-5288, comes at a particularly sensitive time in the case, with two bills pending that would resolve the case legislatively. But even Congress has literally left blank the dollar figure in the legislation. Senate hearings are set for July. Meanwhile, the outcome of two pending appeals in the D.C. Circuit is being closely watched for the potential effect on the legislation. In a packed courthouse in April, the panel heard three hours of arguments over the government’s request to take the case away from Lamberth for alleged bias, and to overturn Lamberth’s injunction forcing Interior to disconnect Internet access to the trust accounts until it improves lax protection against computer hacking. Suppression of the Balaran reports “has no effect for one principle reason; the court never adopted and never relied on them,” said Dennis Gingold, one of the attorneys for Cobell and a solo practitioner in Washington. “Neither the government nor the court has said that they were in error,” he added. Interior Department spokesman Shane Wolfe said that he would “let the [suppression] decision speak for itself.” Balaran visited reservations during his tenure and reported that department officials failed to include in court reports problems with reform measures and in some instances purposefully destroyed documents. In some visits, he found records sitting in pools of water or partly eaten by rodents. Balaran hired an executive from a technology firm used by Interior to monitor computer record-keeping systems. The executive lost the contract job allegedly after filing critical reports about Interior and was later hired by Balaran to help with an inspection of the same records. “We believe suppression of Balaran’s reports is warranted and indeed necessary,” wrote Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit. Thrown into the mix, the appeals court taping system malfunctioned during the April argument so there is no recording or transcript, confirmed court clerk Mark Langer. Cobell v. Norton, No. 05-5269. Gingold expressed concern at the loss of the April argument record, stating that the government made a “number of concessions” during argument, but without a record there would be no way to show that on appeal. Lamberth has not minced words about Interior’s conduct over the years. In July 2005, he called the Interior Department’s “degenerate tenure” as trustee, “a story shot through with bureaucratic blunders, flubs, goofs, and foul-ups, and peppered with scandals, deception, dirty tricks and outright villainy-the end of which is nowhere in sight. “This case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few,” wrote Lamberth.

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