Interior official says U.S. cheated Navajos, is fired

Robert Gehrke
Associated Press
Sept. 18, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The Interior Department has fired an employee who told a court investigator that the department was failing in its duty to protect the Navajos from being cheated by oil and gas companies.

Kevin Gambrell, who had been head of the Farmington, N.M., Indian Minerals Office since 1996, said he protested for six years that Navajo landowners were not receiving fair compensation for the use of their land, but he was ignored.

This year, he contacted Alan Balaran, an investigator appointed by a federal judge presiding in a class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department.

The suit alleges that the department has mismanaged Indian money for more than a century.

Balaran filed a report last month that said private landowners near the sprawling Navajo Reservation were paid, in some cases, 20 times what the Indians were being paid.

He said those discrepancies and the destruction of records related to the deals had constituted a failure by the Interior Department to meet its legal obligation to Indian landowners to ensure a fair payment for the use of their land.

In May, the department put Gambrell on paid administrative leave, saying he had destroyed documents and was insubordinate. On Monday, the department formally fired him.

"It was just an excuse to get rid of me," Gambrell said. "It's very unfair treatment."

A spokesman for the Interior Department said he could not comment on personnel matters.

"Kevin Gambrell's career difficulties started the moment his phone records showing contact with the Special Master (Balaran) were discovered," said Dan Meyer, general counsel for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Given Interior's sorry track record in this area, they would be far better served promoting Kevin Gambrell than firing him."

Gambrell has filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board and has notified the judge in the Indian money case, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, of his termination.

Gambrell said for years the Indians have been told by oil and gas companies to sign blank leases to build pipelines across their land and the companies would fill in the lease rates later.