Interior waited weeks on trust fund shutdown
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Despite claiming the disbursement of millions in dollars in payment to American Indians has been a top priority, the Department of Interior waited nearly a month to ask a federal court to sign off on a plan to ensure speedy delivery of the funds.

Putting the health and livelihood of thousands of individual Indians throughout the country in disarray, the department's information technology team -- led by Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason -- didn't seek permission to reconnect a critical system to the Internet until last week. Due to the delay, about $15 million went unpaid last month, based on historical figures, with millions more in limbo, all while top officials including Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said making payments was their biggest concern.

"I'm very painfully aware of that," McCaleb said last week when the subject was brought up. "We have examples all the time of people in dire need. If I had my way, we'd start issuing checks tomorrow or today."

"But we are under a court order," he continued, "and that court order will not be disregarded."

Under a December 5 order, computer systems that house, or provide access to, individual trust data have been shutdown after special master Alan Balaran published a report detailing the ease at which the assets of 300,000 American Indians can be compromised. Subsequently -- at the government's request -- the order was replaced on December 17 with document, drafted by Secretary Norton's own lawyers, that directs the Interior to work Balaran to fix the problems.

By that time, the Interior had already asked for permission to reconnect the Integrated Resources Management System (IRMS) to the Internet so that trust fund payments could be made. But Cason and other officials ignored a provision which would have allowed IRMS to be reactivated temporarily and instead sought authorization to put the system online permanently.

Temporary reconnection could have sent payments to account holders in time for Christmas. On the other hand, a permanent fix could take 12 to 24 months to implement because it would require complying with a "complex" federal standard, said Bill Roselius, a top aide to McCaleb.

Only on January 4, a day after McCaleb met with tribal leaders in Oklahoma, did the Interior ask for temporary permission. However, the offering didn't seem to impress Balaran, who said in a letter that any harm inflicted upon Indian Country could only be blamed on the Interior.

As of yesterday, though, IRMS still hadn't been reconnected, according BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling. But she defended the delay in proposing a temporary fix.

"The reason we didn't get one earlier, was that we were trying to get [to] the bigger picture with the Internet," she acknowledged. "I don't think that anybody knew the task at hand. The judge wasn't saying you need to deal with the temporary thing first."

In the meantime, angry tribal leaders and Indian landowners have made their dissatisfaction known to the BIA, attorneys handling the class action against the government and a federal court overseeing the debacle. In Oklahoma, some told McCaleb the lack of payments has hurt the people who need the money most.

"A lot of these royalty owners, they are not like you all," said Carson Antelope, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. "You all have your bills paid. They are behind maybe two months now."

"You all don't have to worry about that, like us."

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

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