Keith Harper tries to sound measured when describing how it feels to win contempt orders against two Clinton Cabinet members. “I wouldn’t call it celebratory,” he says, “as much as satisfied.”
But the excitement in the 32-year-old lawyer’s voice is hard to miss. Harper is the lead attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a Colorado-based group pursuing a class action on behalf of at least 300,000 Native Americans against the federal government. Their claim is that the Department of the Interior has for decades woefully mismanaged thousands of trust accounts created by the government for Native Americans. The 1996 suit demanded an accounting of the trusts, and, after two years of stalling by the Interior and Treasury Departments, U.S. district court judge Royce Lamberth erupted. In a scathing February 22 order, the judge excoriated Interior and Treasury and various Justice Department lawyers for their failure to produce trust records. What’s more, he held Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt in civil contempt, and ordered them to pay the plaintiffs’ costs and legal fees relating to the delay. “I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government,” Lamberth seethed.
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