Babbitt to Testify before Senate Panel on Indian Affairs

Article excerpt

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, under threat of a subpoena, will testify today before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on his role in the department's suspected mismanagement of more than $2 billion in American Indian trust funds.

Mr. Babbitt had refused as recently as Friday to appear before the committee, chaired by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, but changed his mind after Mr. Campbell scheduled a committee meeting to vote on whether to issue a subpoena to compel his attendance.

The Interior Department was named in a class-action lawsuit in 1996 filed by the Native American Rights Fund - representing various Indian tribes - that accused the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs of mismanaging the trust funds. Mr. Babbitt and Treasury Secretary James E. Rubin were identified as defendants in the suit.

Department officials have been unable to produce accounting records or statements to verify how much cash has been collected. An audit by the Arthur Andersen accounting firm said the Bureau of Indian Affairs could not account for $2.4 billion in transactions involving the funds.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who is presiding in the pending suit, held Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Rubin in contempt of court for failing to turn over Indian trust records. Judge Lamberth issued the contempt citation after the two Cabinet officers refused to produce trust fund records, canceled checks and other documents demanded by the court.

The judge found "clear and convincing evidence" that Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Rubin, along with Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover, disobeyed his order. He told them to pay reasonable legal fees and other expenses for their failure to comply with a November 1996 court order to produce the documents.

"The court is deeply disappointed that any litigant would fail to obey orders for production of documents, and then conceal and cover up that disobedience with outright false statements that the court then relied upon," the judge said in a terse 76-page order. …