Tom Strickland, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, has resigned from his post as chief of staff for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Denver Post reported Monday.
Strickland, who also served as assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, will officially step down in February, ending a two-year run with the Department of the Interior to pursue other endeavors.
A commission named by President Barack Obama is set to release a report on the 2010 Gulf oil spill, an episode that involved Strickland in a minor controversy, since he took what was described as a work-related trip to the Grand Canyon during the early days of the disaster, ABC News reported.
“Tom has been a driving force in standing up our Interior leadership team, launching a 21st century conservation agenda, leading initiatives such as the Everglades restoration, and helping restore the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” Salazar said in a statement. “He is a dynamic leader, a nationally recognized champion for conservation, and a close friend of more than 30 years. Time and again, he has delivered results for the administration and the American people.”
Strickland will most likely return to the private sector and remain in Washington. His two positions will now be handled by two people. Laura Daniel Davis will become the new chief of staff, and Will Shafroth will serve as acting assistant secretary until a new assistant secretary is confirmed.
Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich wants to draw from DOJ ranks to staff a unit charged with strengthening regulation and enforcement in the newly reorganized Bureau of Ocean Energy that he took over earlier this week.
As one of his first acts as head of the agency, Bromwich created a new investigations and review unit in the front office of BOE that will investigate allegations against agency personnel and the companies that it regulates.
“We are going to be hiring some of the top people available, but in the meantime I’m hoping to get on detail people from the Department of Justice with whom I’ve worked in the past and perhaps other people in government so that we will be able to get up and running immediately to address some of the very significant issues that are on my plate right now,” Bromwich said in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.
President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar named Bromwich to take over the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, which had been accused of lax oversight and conflicts of interest in the fallout of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Bromwich had been a litigation partner resident at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP since 1999. He served as Inspector General for the Department of Justice from 1994 until 1999.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether Bromwich had discussed a detail with the DOJ, citing a policy not against discussing personnel issues.
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Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich took the reins Monday of the newly renamed government entity charged with the regulation of offshore drilling in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — or the Bureau of Ocean Energy (BOE) for short — was named by Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar in a Secretarial Order dated June 18.
Bromwich was sworn in during a small ceremony Monday, less than a week after President Barack Obama announced he was taking over the division previously known as the Minerals Management Service.
In a statement, Salazar praised Bromwich’s qualifications for the job.
“Michael Bromwich has a strong track record of reforming the way organizations work, both in the public and private sectors,” Salazar said. “He will be a key part of our team as we continue to change the way the Department of the Interior does business, help our nation transition to a clean energy future, and lead the reforms that will raise the bar for offshore oil and gas operations.”
Salazar told The New York Times that he chose Bromwich from a list of nine candidates given to him by the White House. Bromwich had been a litigation partner resident at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP since 1999. He served as Inspector General for the Department of Justice from 1994 until 1999.
Bromwich, known during his time as Inspector General of DOJ as a meticulous enforcer of ethical standards, pledged tough enforcement of offshore drilling operations in a statement.
“The BP oil spill has underscored the need for stronger oversight of offshore oil and gas operations, more tools and resources for aggressive enforcement, and a more effective structure for the agency that holds companies accountable,” Bromwich said. “We will move quickly and responsibly on our reforms.”
Only Bromwich’s new colleagues attended his swearing-in ceremony, a spokeswoman told The Washington Post. Interior Department Communications Director Betsy Hildebrandt held the Bible for Bromwich as he took his oath.
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If things had gone according to schedule, the implementation of the settlement of one of the largest class action suits brought against the U.S. government would have already gone through Congress, been approved by a judge and the government would soon be cutting checks. But the legislative branch does not always work on the judicial branch’s schedule.
On Wednesday morning, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli will take to the Hill to urge legislators to pass a bill that would finally end a lawsuit that has played out in courts for nearly 15 years.
On Dec. 7, the government reached a $3.4 billion settlement in Cobell v. Salazar. The lawsuit, filed by Elouise Cobell on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indians, alleged that the Interior Department mishandled thousands of individual Indian trust fund accounts over more than 100 years.
The settlement requires congressional approval, however, and the original terms gave lawmakers a Dec. 31 deadline to finish the necessary legislation. That deadline has been extended twice and is now set to expire in April.
Congressional aides said they were not asked for input on the establishment of the deadline. Nor did the Justice Department lawyers who negotiated the settlement consult with members of Congress about the logistics of passing legislation just as Congress was dealing with other top priority issues — namely health care legislation — in an effort to complete work before its end-of-session Christmas break, according to the aides. A person familiar with the negotiations said that Judge James Robertson, the U.S. District Court judge who heard the case, dictated the short deadline.
Aides in the House and Senate said both the original deadline of Dec. 31 and the second extended deadline of Feb. 28 were unreasonable. Aides said they are more optimistic about the new April 16 deadline, but nobody is making any promises.
As the parties to the settlement wait for congressional approval, Cobell and her team are left with only private funds to explain the terms of the settlement to a hard-to-reach segment of the population. A massive planned government-backed awareness campaign – which includes television, radio, and print advertising across Indian country, as well as materials explaining the settlement in Native American languages — will not kick in until after Congress acts.
According to Cobell, government lawyers did not want to allocate any funds for outreach to Indian Country prior to the passage of legislation.
“The government instead assured us that legislation would be passed a few weeks after we signed the settlement agreement on Dec. 7,” Cobell wrote in the Native American Times. “Unfortunately, legislation was not passed (and has still not been passed) and the need to meet with Indian Country is stronger than ever.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman noted that Perrelli and the Solicitor of Interior Hilary Tompkins recently appeared before the National Congress of American Indians to answer questions on the settlement and that other federal representatives have appeared before tribal organizations.
“If Congress enacts legislation, we can then — per the settlement – provide for more extensive outreach to inform individual Indians and tribal governments about the settlement,” DOJ spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.
Bill Dorris, one of the lawyers representing Cobell, said that in talking with the Justice Department and with members of Congress, they have not found any real opposition to the legislation. Dorris said he was unsure why the legislation has not yet moved forward.
“We hope the new goal is realistic, we haven’t heard anything to indicate otherwise,” said Dorris.
Perrelli is set to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday along with Cobell and several other American Indian leaders.
The Natural Resources panel’s top Republican, Doc Hastings of Washington, is expected to press the witnesses about how lawyers who negotiated the deal would be paid and about the lack of regional consultations between the Obama administration and Indian Country.
“The executive branch obviously wants this to happen quickly,” said Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for committee Republicans. “This will give us some opportunities to get some questions answered at the hearing.”
Those scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing include:
Michael Finley, president, Intertribal Monitoring Association on Indian Trust Funds.
Austin Nunez, chairman, Indian Land Working Group.
Richard Monette , professor, University of Wisconsin Law School.
David Hayes , deputy secretary of the Interior.
Thomas J. Perrelli , Associate Attorney General.
This story has been modified to clarify that the judge who is hearing the case has not yet approved the settlement, since it requires Congressional action.
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UPDATE: The deadline has been extended until Feb. 28, writes BLT. No other conditions of the settlement changed according to Cobell lawyer Keith Harper, who signed the agreement with the Justice Department Tuesday afternoon.
Lawyers representing Elouise Cobell, the main plaintiff in the long-running Indian trust litigation, are in discussions with the government about possibly extending Thursday’s deadline to finalize a settlement agreement that required action from Congress.
The settlement reached earlier this month required Congress to pass legislation authorizing payment to the plaintiffs by Dec. 31. Congress did not take action before adjourning for its holiday break.
Keith Harper, one of the lawyers for Cobell, confirmed ongoing discussions to the Blog of Legal Times.
The settlement of the case, Cobell v. Salazar, was announced at a press conference at the Department of the Interior on Dec. 8, and was discussed before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Dec. 17.
“[T]he litigation has drained federal resources from Indian Country, and has created a poisonous atmosphere for the administration of the federal government’s trust responsibilities in Indian Country,” said Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli in testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs panel.
“Throughout our discussions with the plaintiffs, we have been guided by two principles,” said Perrelli. “First, we wanted true peace for the parties. We wanted to turn the page on history. The resolution of the accounting and trust administration pieces of this litigation will do that.”
Cobell v. Salazar was one of the largest class actions ever filed against the U.S. government. The lawsuit, originally filed in 1996, was brought by Cobell on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans holding individual Indian money accounts.
If approved and funded by Congress, the $3.4 billion settlement agreement includes $1.4 billion that would be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historic accounting claims and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets, according to the Justice Department.
The other $2 billion would go to establish a land consolidation program to provide individual Indians with an opportunity to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities. The allegations of mismanagement went all the way back to 1887.
“What we’ve long thought was needed was leadership on the other side,” Harper told Main Justice earlier this month. “For people to recognize that we could litigate forever on both sides, but it’s far better to resolve the case and try to build a foundation upon which there can a more healthy and trusting relationship.”
“You have a president now who has committed to that and made very clear that this was one of his priorities, you have a secretary of the Interior who has made it one of his priorities,” said Harper.
“Trying to judge whether something will get through Congress is challenging,” said Harper earlier this month. “Would I be shocked if it didn’t? No, but that’s just the way this town works, but it’s just hard to predict with any precision, but I’m optimistic.”
View video from the Dec. 8 press conference below:
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Chevron Corp. has agreed to pay more that $45.5 million to settle claims that it shortchanged federal, state and American Indian accounts when paying royalties owed on land leases, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The government alleged that the company systematically deducted costs, reduced the value of gas, and reported processed gas as unprocessed in order to shrink royalty payments. The payments were made to the Interior Department, which oversees collection and distribution of roylalties on federal and Indian lands. The alleged conduct occurred from March 1988 to November 2008.
“This administration is changing the way Interior does business and settlements, such as this one, demonstrate our determination to assure the American public receives fair market value for the resources we manage in their name,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
Civil Division Chief Tony West said the Justice Department was ”committed to protecting public and Indian lands and to ensuring that companies with leases to take natural gas from those lands pay their fair share of royalties.”
The $45.5 million will be divvied among federal, state and American Indian accounts. The case, brought under the False Claims Act, was handled by the Civil Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, and the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, Minerals Management Service and Office of the Solicitor.
The settlement flows from an FCA lawsuit filed by whistleblower Harrold Wright, who died in the course of the litigation. His heirs will receive $12.3 million as part of the settlement, the Justice Department said.
The Justice Department previously settled with Burlington Resources Inc. for $105.3 million, Shell Oil Co. for $56 million and Dominion Exploration and Production Co. for $2 million.
Wednesday’s announcement comes on the two weeks after the government entered into an agreement to pay more than $1.4 billion to settle a long-running class-action brought by American Indians who accused the Interior Department of mishandling Indian funds held in trust. The plaintiffs and the government executed a settlement Dec. 7, but it requires approval from Congress and a federal district judge.
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The Republican former U.S. Attorney in Colorado is pushing Denver lawyer John Walsh for the state’s top federal prosecuting job, The Denver Post reports.
Troy Eid, who served as U.S. Attorney during the Bush administration, wrote Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that Walsh is “ethical and a person of unimpeachable character and integrity.”
Walsh, a white-collar criminal and civil attorney with the Hill & Robbins law firm, has re-emerged as a candidate for U.S. Attorney after President Barack Obama’s original nominee, Stephanie Villafuerte, withdrew on Monday, citing “political attacks” by Republicans.
Walsh and Villafuerte were recommended to the White House earlier this year by Udall and then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who is now Interior secretary. Their other recommendation was Bill Thiebaut, a district attorney for Pueblo, Colo.
In his letter to the senator, Eid said: “I know from my own experience that United States Attorneys are entrusted with tremendous power over life and property,” adding, “Colorado’s chief law enforcement leader must act in an ethical and nonpartisan way that’s beyond reproach. Our civil rights and community safety are at stake.”
Walsh also had worked previously for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
Former state Sen. Norma Anderson (R) also reached out to Udall on Walsh’s behalf. Anderson told The Post she has known Walsh for a number of years and believes he is “unbiased (and) open- minded and works well with both parties.” She added, “We’re not going to get a Republican appointed, so why not take the best of the Democrats?”
In a Wednesday email to The Post, Walsh wrote, “I was deeply honored to be on the list sent by Sen. Udall and then-Sen. Salazar to the President in January to be considered for nomination as U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado,” adding, “I am deeply honored to be considered now.”
Thiebaut, also in a Wednesday email to The Post, wrote that “everyone has a reason to support or to not support their favorite candidate.” He added, “I am sure that the President will make the right decision in selecting a new nominee after vetting potential candidates.”
Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo told The Post she does not expect that anyone other than Walsh and Thiebaut will be recommended to Obama.
Villafuerte, a longtime aide to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), was nominated Sept. 30. She withdrew from consideration following a controversy about whether she accessed a law enforcement database in connection with Ritter’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Villafuerte has denied the allegations.
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Attorney General Eric Holder this morning announced a settlement totaling more than $3.4 billion in a long running class-action case — Cobell v. Salazar — in which the Interior Department was accused of mishandling funds in Indian trust funds which belong to individual Native Americans.
It was one of the largest class actions ever filed against the U.S. government, said Holder. The lawsuit, originally filed in 1996, was brought by Elouise Cobell on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans holding individual Indian money accounts.
The settlement still must receive congressional approval, which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he hoped would happen by the end of the year. A court would also have to approve the settlement, which Salazar anticipated would happen over the next several months.
The $3.4 billion settlement includes $1.4 billion that will be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historic accounting claims and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets, according to the Justice Department.
The other $2 billion will go to establish a land consolidation program to provide individual Indians with an opportunity to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities, the Justice Department said.
Holder said the U.S. has tried to settle this case many times, and indeed this settlement almost failed in the last moments. Both parties were able to come to an agreement late last night.
Of the $2 billion, the settlement authorizes the Interior Department to set aside up to 5 percent of the value of the land sold back to the government into a scholarship fund for Native American students.
With the scholarship fund, said Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, “the Indian people have something to look forward to for the future.”
“We’ve suffered too long in the government’s hands and now it’s time for change,” said Cobell.
“If it was me, I would fight on for another 100 years, I was not tired,” she said. “I wanted to continue to fight on, but the deciding factor was, I live in Indian country and I see every single day people dying without their money and you just can’t take it anymore.”
Holder said the settlement was significant move from the government, which up until this point had not agreed that it owed the plaintiffs any money.
“The United States could have continued to litigate this case, at great expense to the taxpayers. It could have let all of these claims linger, and could even have let the problem of fractionated land continue to grow with each generation,” said Holder. “But with this settlement, we are erasing these past liabilities and getting on track to eliminate them going forward.
Holder thanked her for her willingness to compromise, said Cobell.
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The United States has settled a 13-year-old class action lawsuit alleging the government mismanaged assets held in trust for American Indians.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are holding a news conference at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington this morning to announce the settlement.
According to this settlement agreement, the government will pay $1.4 billion to settle the claims. We’ll have an update later.
President Obama nominated U.S. Attorneys for Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma today. They are:
Stephanie Villafuerte (Colorado): Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D)’s deputy chief of staff for community outreach would replace David Gaouette, who was appointed as the state’s acting U.S. Attorney Jan. 10, following the resignation of Bush appointee Troy Eid. Villafuerte, who was recommended by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), previously served as Denver’s chief deputy district attorney. She also worked on Ritter’s campaign.
- Sanford Coats (Western District of Oklahoma): The Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma has served in his current role since 2004 and simultaneously headed the major crimes section of the office from 2007 to 2008. Before joining the office he was an associate at the Oklahoma City law firm Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens.
- Beth Phillips (Western District of Missouri) The Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri has served in her current role since last year. Before joining the office she was an attorney in the Leawood law firm Bartimus, Frickleton, Robertson & Gorny. In addition, from 1997 to 2001 Phillips served as an assistant prosecutor in Jackson County.
Obama has now made a total of 30 U.S. Attorney nominations. The full Senate has considered 14 of those nominees and they were all confirmed by unanimous consent. Read biographies of the nominees here.