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Cabinet members held in contempt over failure to disclose records

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  1. Freedom of Information
Cabinet members held in contempt over failure to disclose records 03/08/99 WASHINGTON, D.C.--Cabinet members Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior,…

Cabinet members held in contempt over failure to disclose records


WASHINGTON, D.C.–Cabinet members Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, and Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, were held in civil contempt and fined by a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., in late February for their departments’ failure to comply with court-ordered records disclosure.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover was also held in contempt by Judge Royce Lamberth after a two-week trial.

Noting what he called “the defendants’ flagrant disregard for the orders of this court and the defendants’ corresponding lack of candor in concealing their wrongdoing,” Lamberth imposed monetary sanctions and appointed a special master to oversee document production in the case.

The contempt proceeding arose during a class-action suit alleging that the government mismanaged funds held on behalf of 300,000 Native Americans. After the federal government’s 1934 breakup of tribal lands into tracts which were then leased for farming, grazing, timber and mineral rights, the federal government assumed the role of trustee.

As part of their suit, the Native American group asked for a formal accounting of the trust. The court twice ordered the Departments of the Interior and Treasury to produce documents and records related to specific individuals. Among the documents sought were cancelled checks, short-term leases, probate information and trust patents.

However, trust records were scattered throughout different agencies and offices around the nation in a system that Paul Homan, a former special trustee for the funds, called “the worst I have ever seen in my life.”

Despite the passage of two years, the government “had not even come close” to complying with the court’s orders, Lamberth found.

Some records were missing, others were destroyed when an agreement to spare documents from routine destruction went unheeded. Government officials alleged that still other warehoused documents were potentially contaminated by a mouse-bourne virus.

Attempts to produce the records were hindered by interagency bickering and fingerpointing, compounded by case mismanagement by the attorneys, Lamberth wrote. Substantial agency funding necessary to fulfill the request was cut, portions of the court order were ignored outright and government attorneys made no effort to inform the court that their agencies were not complying with the request, he found.

Once the government realized it was not in compliance, its attorneys made a fundamental mistake by attempting to cover up the problems, instead of candidly disclosing the problem to the court, Lamberth noted.

“I do not relish holding these cabinet officials in contempt.” Lamberth wrote. “And I do so today more out of sadness than anger. But the courts have a duty to hold government officials responsible for their conduct when they infringe on the legitimate rights of others.” (Cobell v. Babbitt)