WASHINGTON — A federal judge this week ordered a court ethics panel to investigate six Justice Department attorneys for their conduct in a landmark class-action suit against the government that seeks billions of dollars and was filed on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans.
In a 20-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth also blocked the Interior and Justice departments from continuing to send mass mailings to the Indian plaintiffs that include a provision that would terminate the Indians' rights to claim damages, even as the lawsuit continues.
Lamberth already has held three Cabinet officials in contempt of court for their failures in Indian trust fund reform, including Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. His most recent order in the 6-year-old case, signed late Tuesday, said government attorneys failed to ask for the court's permission to send the notices to more than 1,100 plaintiffs.
That was a clear violation of rules governing attorney conduct, he wrote, and referred the issue to the disciplinary panel of U.S. District Court here.
"The court ... is at an utter loss to understand why defendants thought this court would consider it acceptable for them to include language [in the letters] that extinguishes the very rights that are the heart of this class-action litigation," he wrote.
The court's Committee on Grievances, which investigates allegations of misconduct, could dismiss the case or issue a range of sanctions.
"It's just astonishing," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, who is helping to represent plaintiffs. "They communicated with our clients in violation of court orders, even when the issue was pending before the judge."
Calls to the Justice Department's press office were not returned. In court motions filed earlier, attorneys had said they did not think they were required to inform the court about the letters.
Jon Wright, a spokesman for the Interior Department, declined to comment.
The Indian plaintiffs are seeking a full historical accounting of the Individual Indian Monies trust fund, a sprawling series of accounts started in 1887 when the government forced Indian tribes off 90 million acres of their land.
In return, they and their heirs were granted royalties from the sale of oil, gas, timber, mineral and other rights on an additional 11 million acres.
The fund now generates more than $500 million a year to at least 300,000 account holders, although so many records have been lost or incompetently kept over the decades that the government is unable to provide an accurate history for a single account.
The Indians filed suit in 1996, claiming the government owes them at least $10 billion in lost or missing funds.
But in October, with the trust fund under Lamberth's oversight, the government sent out 1,100 notices to trust fund account holders, claiming that enclosed statements were full and accurate historical accounts.
The data would be "final and cannot be appealed" unless the recipient filed a challenge within 60 days, the note said.
The Interior and Justice departments were planning to send an additional 14,235 historical accounts when Lamberth blocked the move this week.
The attorneys Lamberth referred for investigation are Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert D. McCallum Jr., as well as Stuart E. Schiffer, J. Christopher Kohn, Sandra P. Spooner, John T. Stemplewicz and Cynthia L. Alexander.
Lamberth's order says that any other attorneys, either from Justice or Interior, who participated in the mailings also should be investigated.