Interior computer shutdown means no payments for 43,000 Indians

Saturday, December 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A judge's order intended to protect land royalties for American Indians has resulted in 43,000 Indians failing to receive payments that many rely on.

On Dec. 5, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to shut down Internet access to nearly the entire agency after a court-appointed investigator found that a lack of computer security put the Indian trust funds at risk.

But the shutdown has prevented the Interior Department from accessing the data they need to make payments to the Indians whose land proceeds feed into the account.

``They won't get done because of the court order,'' said Interior spokesman John Wright said.

Interior can't determine how much money would have been paid out in December, but last year payments totaled about $15 million for the month, Wright said.

The department collects royalties from mining, grazing and timber harvesting on Indian land and makes payments to the beneficiaries. About $500 million passes through the accounting system each year.

Lamberth shut down the system at the request of Dennis Gingold, who represents 300,000 Indian beneficiaries in a class-action lawsuit over government mismanagement of the trust fund.

Gingold said the government is playing games with the Indian money and said that to not make payments to the Indian landholders two weeks before Christmas is unconscionable.

``No trustee in the world acting in good faith would do what the defendants are doing to these beneficiaries and deny them the money they need to subsist,'' he said.

Friday afternoon, attorneys for the Interior Department and Gingold nearly struck a deal that would allow some computer systems back online. But, as a condition, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Nagle asked that Lamberth drop computer security matters from a contempt proceeding against Interior Secretary Gale Norton that started Monday.

Gingold refused, arguing the agreement would only deal with future security but do nothing to punish the department for past security failures.

Lamberth has ordered the Interior Department to overhaul its system of accounting for the Indian trust funds and piece together how much the government squandered during more than a century of mismanagement.

But a series of reports by court-appointed investigators have shown the department has failed to do either and has misled the court about trust reform progress.

The reports were the basis for the contempt hearing against Norton, although many of the failures occurred under her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt.

The plaintiffs say the government has wasted more than $10 billion of Indian money.

Interior employees have been able to receive their paychecks because time sheets for the 70,000 employees have been faxed in or sent in from across the country and entered manually, Wright said.