February 14, 2002
A Computer Shutdown Plays Havoc at Interior

After a 10-week court-ordered shutdown of nearly all its computer communications, the Interior Department said yesterday that it had restored some of them, bringing e- mail back to government scientists, Web service to national parks - and payments to nearly 40,000 American Indians.

The blanket electronic closing of a department that manages everything from seashores in New England to Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky stemmed from a problem that has been out of sight of much of official Washington but has played havoc with the lives of millions of people who depend on an agency that is landlord to one-eighth of the United States.

A federal district judge ordered the department on Dec. 5 to shut down its entire computer system, saying it could not safeguard the accounting system that manages money for Indians.

The judge, Royce C. Lamberth, who is hearing the largest class-action suit ever filed by Indians, has already found that the government mismanaged Indian money for more than a century. In the process of a second trial, to determine whether Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton should be held in contempt for failing to comply with past orders on cleaning up the department, the judge found that Interior's Web sites were vulnerable to computer hacking.

In court in Washington yesterday, Secretary Norton promised Judge Lamberth that checks were on the way to thousands of Indians and said that about 40 percent of the department's Web sites were safe enough from hackers to reopen. The other major Interior Web sites remain offline.

To Indians who live in cities and on the reservations in the West, and depend on the $500 million in annual income that the department manages for them as part of a historic trust, the promises have a hollow ring, some of them said.

"I've watched them jump around for Enron (news/quote) while I haven't received so much as a single word about the money they owe me," said Rosemary Pimms, a Yakama Indian who lives in Seattle on the royalty payments that the government manages for her. "Nothing new there: the Indian is always last in line."

In Oklahoma, New Mexico and Washington state, which have large tribal populations, the cutoff of royalty payments, which come yearly, quarterly or monthly, put some families in danger of losing their homes.

"The house payment is the one we're most worried about now," said Billy Wolfe, who lives in a trailer with his wife, Christine, in Lamar, Okla. The couple depend on $450 a month in royalty income that the government manages for them. They have not received a check for three months, and there is a lien on the trailer, Mr. Wolfe said.

The Indians point out that the checks are not government handouts, but money owed individual Indians from land leased to outside business interests and managed by the Interior Department.

There are more than 500,000 such accounts, though the bulk of the money goes to 43,000 Indians who get regular royalty checks ranging from a few dollars to several thousand. The tribes say the government has lost up to $100 billion over the last century because of mismanagement and poor accounting.

"The way these people have been treated recently is an outrage," said Representative Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, whose district is 21 percent Indian. "It's just been a huge injustice. There are people out there living day to day, month to month on these checks, and the pace from Interior has been like molasses in winter."

Some tribes, including the Blackfeet, the Oglala Sioux and the Navajo, have made emergency funds available from their tribal welfare accounts to individual Indians.

They say they are furious with Secretary Norton. "Where I live, in Glacier County, Mont., home of the Blackfeet Nation, one of the 25 poorest counties in the United States, I can tell you that many people depend on these payments for the bare necessities of life," Elouise Cabell said in testimony before Congress last week.

Ms. Cabell, a former banker who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, initiated the lawsuit six years ago. She says the way the government manages Indian money is "a national disgrace."

Interior officials said yesterday that they should be able to pay about half of what the Indians are owed from the computer shutdown and would work to make up the full amount in coming months.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mrs. Pimms said.

The accounts date from the 1880's, when the government tried to break up the tribal land ownership system and awarded allotments of land to individual Indians. These lands were then managed by the government, and usually leased to gas, oil or timber companies. As with many trusts, the funds are given to descendants as the oldest generations die.

While most of the Interior computer shutdown has been felt in Indian Country, outdoor enthusiasts have been upset at the loss of Web access. Complaints from people planning vacations to national parks, or trying to get permits to float rivers on federal land, or simply trying to find out the status of bird species from the Fish and Wildlife Service, have been pouring into the department, officials said.

The shutdown has disrupted recruiting for summer firefighters and studies on wetlands and endangered species, and has forced thousands of government workers back to an era of typewriters and endless paper forms.

"We are frustrated because we don't have e-mail between employees, but the public is frustrated because this whole link has been cut off," said John Wright, a spokesman for the department.

Even with the National Park Service Web site scheduled to open within a day, an Interior agency that manages even more land - the Bureau of Land Management - will remain offline indefinitely, as will the Fish and Wildlife Service and the department's general site, officials said.

The Indians are trying to force the government to set up a proper accounting system for the trust funds, and to repay beneficiaries who may have lost money over the last century. The accounts have been so mismanaged, tribal members say, that they do not comply with even the basic standards of running private trusts.

When President Clinton was in office, Judge Lamberth found Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt for their handling of the trust fund records, and the government paid a $600,000 fine.

In ruling three years ago for the Indians, Judge Lamberth wrote, "It would be difficult to find a more historically mismanaged federal program." His ruling was upheld last year by a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia, which wrote, "The trusts at issue here were created over a hundred years ago, and have been mismanaged nearly as long."

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