More shots fired over trust fund shutdown
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's contempt trial resumed on Friday as a federal judge accused top government officials of game-playing by not disbursing millions of dollars in critical payments to thousands of American Indians throughout the country.

Besieged with angry phone calls and letters from tribal leaders and Indian account holders, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth indicated his patience was wearing thin over a computer shutdown he imposed a month ago. He said the government could be delaying the funds as a means of "pressuring" attorneys representing 300,000 American Indians whose lawsuit has embarrassed the Bush and Clinton administrations.

"Or get thousands more people to call me," he said, after Native American Rights Fund attorney Keith Harper raised the issue before the court.

Based on a scathing investigation detailing numerous security failures, Lamberth on December 5 ordered the Interior to disconnect from the Internet the computers and computer systems that house, or provide access to, the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Since then, the systems that process payments to the beneficiaries have been shutdown because government officials admit they cannot operate without public Interior access -- even though they have their own private network.

"This order effectively shuts down the department," Bill Roselius, a consultant to Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, told tribal leaders last week in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He said the department -- with Associate Deputy Security James Cason as the chief negotiator -- was working with special master Alan Balaran to resolve the security problems.

In describing why checks haven't been written, Roselius said: "The special master has the authority to keep anything from happening."

Balaran, whose rocky relationship with the Interior and Department of Justice attorneys has borne itself out numerous times, shot back with a response of his own. On Friday, he blamed the government for the affair, which the Bush administration waited months to start to correct.

"I would respectfully suggest that any harm which has inadvertently befallen trust beneficiaries and others is the direct consequence of years of malaise on the part of those Interior officials charged with ensuring the security of trust data," Balaran wrote.

According to Roselius, one of the biggest holdups involves a "complex" federal standard the Interior has been asked to meet by the court. But he also said "nitpicking" among Balaran and the government has caused a delay.

"You can't focus on every little thing," he told Indianz.Com in an interview. "I think that's unrealistic."

Harper, whose organization has received its own share of heated responses over the shutdown, dismissed explanations the government has provided as empty excuses. "They're using this as leverage [against Indian Country]," he said. "That's all they have."

The BIA has referred some callers to Judge Lamberth's court, said spokesperson Nedra Darling, because they asked for his contact information.

The Interior has already missed December 2001 payments and probably won't able to disburse January 2002 in time either, said officials. Based on December 2000 figures, about $15 million was sent to 43,000 Indian beneficiaries, but Darling did not have historical amounts for January of last year.

Get Balaran's Letter:
Balaran to DOJ (1/4)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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