Court official charges Interior destroyed data

Court official charges Interior destroyed data

The Interior Department unlawfully destroyed computerized information tracking the evaluation of right-of-way fees for oil and gas companies that run pipelines across Navajo lands, according to an official of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Alan Balaran, a court official appointed by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, stated in a filing that Interior officials erased information in their computer systems relating to the valuation of oil and gas pipeline ROWs across Navajo lands. Lamberth is overseeing a 7-year-old series of lawsuits in which American Indians are suing the Interior Department for restoration of funds lost as a result of the department's mismanagement of individual American Indian trust funds.

Balaran issued a 39-page report about a site visit to Interior's Office of Appraisal Services in Gallup, N.M., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Realty Office in Window Rock, Ariz.

In the report, he said that Interior secretary Gale Norton and her delegates had abrogated their responsibilities to conduct ROW appraisals competently and in a method that is beyond reproach, thereby violating court orders, their fiduciary duties under trust law, federal regulations and industry standards.

'The Office of Appraisal Services has erased, deleted and misplaced trust information vital to the valuation of ROWs running across Navajo allotted lands,' according to the report. 'It is doubtful, as a result, whether Navajo allotees are receiving fair market value for leases encumbering their land.'

According to the report, Navajos are receiving ROW payments at a level of $25 to $40 per rod. A rod is 5.5 yards. By contrast, non-Indians and other tribes are receiving ROW payments of as much as $175 to $550 per rod.

Dennis Gingold, attorney for the American Indian plaintiffs in the case of Cobell v. Norton, said, 'This misconduct further confirms Judge Lamberth's finding that Norton is unfit [to manage the funds]. For Norton to approve contracts that cheat Navajo trust beneficiaries and to permit critical trust records to be destroyed is unconscionable. By allowing the destruction of these trust records, Norton has ensured that a complete and accurate accounting is impossible.'

An Interior spokesman said he was not able to make a comment because the report has not been reviewed.

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