Little hope for trust fund payments
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Indian Country rang in the new year without receiving millions of dollars in oil, gas and other royalty payments, a situation not likely to change any time soon, top Bureau of Indian Affairs officials said on Thursday.

Under a federal judge's order to protect the trust assets of 300,000 American Indians, the Department of Interior's computer systems have been shut down for nearly a month. As a result, the BIA has been unable to distribute money that is owed to individual Indian and tribal beneficiaries, which Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said was unacceptable.

"If I had my way, we'd start issuing checks now," Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb told tribal leaders at a consultation meeting in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Yet his department has been unable to reconnect the systems that process the payments, McCaleb acknowledged. He attributed the delay to negotiations between the government and Alan Balaran, a court investigator whose December 5 report on the Interior's paltry security precautions led to the shutdown.

"We think we do have it fixed," he said. But he added: "We have not reached an agreement with the special master."

The Interior has made some progress over the Christmas break, according to Bill Roselius, a private consultant McCaleb hired last fall. Firewalls -- a key component to help prevent hackers from breaking into the computer systems -- are finally in place at Phoenix, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., he said.

But Balaran's requirement that the Interior comply with a "comprehensive" federal information technology standard is extremely "difficult," Roselius said. Only one federal agency has met those conditions, he said, and the immediate prospects for the BIA are not positive.

"This has been going back and forth," Roselius said of the negotiations with the court. "I'm not 100 percent optimistic."

Tribal leaders and account holders weren't happy with the status report. Navajo Nation council member George Arthur said his tribe, the largest in the country, wasn't in danger of missing royalty payments but that 20,000 tribal members haven't been paid.

Carson Antelope, from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, said the shutdown has affected tribal members' ability to pay their bills. "We need our money now," Antelope told McCaleb, imploring him to fix the problem as quickly as possible.

"It's not good enough," McCaleb said of the effort so far. "I'm the first to admit that."

BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling didn't have a dollar amount on the payments that will be missed this month. Based on historic figures, $15 million was distributed to approximately 43,000 individual Indians in December 2000, she said.

The Interior has hired Predictive Systems Inc., who broke into the Individual Indian Money (IIM) system over the summer, and SAIC, a computer security firm, to help resolve the problems.

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

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