Interior wins right to hide records

The Interior Department won a victory Friday, persuading a federal appeals court to suppress three reports that had presented evidence of Interior officials failing to report problems and destroying records used in managing American Indian money.

The documents pertain to a massive class-action lawsuit Native Americans filed against the department a decade ago, saying the government owed them an accounting because it mismanaged a trust in their names for 120 years. The Indian plaintiffs say they are owed tens of billions of dollars.

The author of the reports, Alan Balaran, was appointed by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth as a “special master” in 1999. Balaran supervised the exchange of information between parties in the lawsuit and investigated document destruction.

Balaran’s reports to the judge, including observations from personal visits, found the department had destroyed Indian records, sometimes purposefully, at federal depositories and Indian reservations in the West.

Keith Harper, a lawyer for the Indian plaintiffs suing the department, said Friday, “Most of the facts in those reports have been conceded as true” by the Interior Department.

Interior officials nonetheless asked a federal appeals court to strike Balaran’s reports from the record, saying he had improperly hired as an expert witness a former Interior contractor who had accused the department of fraud.

The former contractor was allowed to draft or edit portions of Balaran’s findings about whether Interior was adequately securing Indians’ trust fund data, the department said.

Justices rebuked Balaran’s use of the contractor, though it only extended to one of the reports to the court, because it made Balaran seem potentially biased.

“It is difficult to imagine a more biased way of conducting and reporting upon an investigation,” wrote Chief Judge Donald Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

An Interior spokesman declined comment Friday, saying the ruling spoke for itself.

Balaran resigned two years ago, saying the government wanted him off the case after he found evidence that private landowners near the Navajo Nation got as much as 20 times more money than Indian landowners from gas pipeline companies for rights to cross their land.

Those findings have not been disputed by the government in the lawsuit.


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