Interior to issue royalty checks to tribes cut off since Interior's computer shutdown

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Interior Department will issue checks to tens of thousands of Indians for royalty payments from oil and gas leases which have been hung up since a judge ordered the department to shut down its computers.

Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that the checks will go out ``as soon as the system can cut them.''

The department collects about $500 million annually in royalties from oil and gas mining and grazing and logging on Indian land, then distributes the money to the landholders.

On Dec. 5, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth shut down nearly all of the Interior Department's Internet connections after a court-appointed investigator discovered that lax computer security left the Indian money at risk from hackers.

As a result, many Indians have not received royalties for their land _ money that many rely on to make payments on their homes, cars or heating bills. Several tribes, including the Navajo, Oglala Sioux and Blackfeet nations have made emergency money available to struggling members.

On Jan. 25, Interior Department officials convinced the court that security was adequate and they should be allowed to resume making payments for grazing and logging royalties. But the system that handles oil and gas royalties, which are the bulk of the Indian trust accounts, remains shut down.

The checks promised by Griles will be based on estimates of how much the royalties were worth during the past three months. Once the computer system is operational, the total will be calculated and any necessary adjustments made.

Lamberth is presiding in a class-action lawsuit brought by Indians who claim government mismanagement of the royalties has cost them at least $10 billion over the last century. The government acknowledges mismanagement but disputes the amount.