- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

The shutdown of a federal trust fund for American Indians has left thousands of the country's poorest citizens without money for food, heat and other necessities.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth had ordered the Interior Department to disconnect from the Internet after a court-appointed investigator was able to hack into the trust account.

A tentative agreement reached yesterday would allow parts of the department's network to reconnect, once court-ordered monitor Alan Balaran is satisfied that adequate security measures have been taken to protect Indian trust funds.

Since the Dec. 5 disconnect order, federal officials have been unable to access the trust fund or deliver 43,000 checks to Indian country.

"Christmas is coming and the people don't know where to turn to," said John Yellowbird Steele, Oglala tribal president on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

Pine Ridge is the most impoverished Indian community in America, where the average annual income is $4,500 and 20 percent of homes lack a functioning toilet and telephone.

"They are not living up to their treaty obligation," Mr. Steele said.

In his reconnect order yesterday, Judge Lamberth called the department's security "a disgrace to the United States" but said he had to permit some Internet access because "innocent citizens" were suffering.

Indian reservation lands are leased to corporations for natural resource development such as oil, gas, coal and timber operations. The lease fees are collected by the federal government, deposited in the trust fund accounts, and dispersed to tribes and individuals on a monthly basis.

More than $10 billion of Indian money has been mismanaged in the trust funds. Judge Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to overhaul its accounting system and determine 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 a contempt hearing that began last week against Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, although many of the failures occurred under her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt.

An Interior Department spokesman could not determine how much money would have been paid out in December, but last year payments totaled about $15 million for the month.

The level of necessity for the payments depends on the relative health of each tribes' economy, said Paul Moorehead, Republican staff director and chief council for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"For people who rely on these checks, it will not be a very bright Christmas," Mr. Moorehead said.

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