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Sign Of The Times

(Kilpatrick Stockton)
One of the harshest critics of the Bush Administration's policies toward Native Americans, Keith Harper, is now shaping Obama's policies for Indian Country, one sign that swift change is coming to the Interior Department.

Harper is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a well-known Washington DC attorney who has been representing half a million Native Americans in a bitter class action lawsuit against the federal government that has stretched on for 12 years. The suit, known as Cobell vs. Kempthorne (named for current Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne), charges the government withheld and mismanaged billions of dollars in land royalties that should have been paid out to Native Americans for over a hundred years. At one point in the case, a federal judge was so exasperated with the agency's inability to secure Indian trust files that he ordered the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs to cease all use of email. Harper has called the administration's efforts to resolve the case "woefully insufficient."

As recently as July, Harper was registered as a federal lobbyist for two tribes seeking federal recognition, one in Alabama and another in Washington state. Often tribes seek federal recognition as a precursor to Indian gaming. Harper was a top adviser on Indian affairs for Obama during the campaign and is currently advising the transition.

The Interior Department's recent history has been tumultuous with this notable declaration from the agency's inspector general Earl Devaney before Congress in 2006, "Short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior." Earlier this year the IG's office exposed a "sex for oil" scandal at the department where investigators said agency regulators were sleeping with oil company employees.

Laura Strickler is an investigative producer for CBS News.

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