Judge blocks Indian records shipment

A federal judge barred the Interior Department April 18 from transferring 32,000 boxes of documents containing individual trust data that forms the basis of an ongoing lawsuit over the agency's mismanagement of American Indian money.

Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker, a presidential appointee tasked with reforming the Indian trust fund system, wanted to ship the records from warehouses in New Mexico to the Federal Records Center in Missouri in a cost- and space-saving move.

Court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran slammed the plan in an emergency report to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth April 17.

"The proposed retirement of these documents is ill-planned, ill-conceived and will almost surely compromise the ability of individual Indian trust beneficiaries to access vital [Individual Indian Money] data," Balaran said.

Following a motion from the plaintiffs, Lamberth granted a 10-day temporary restraining order.

A group of American Indians filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, alleging that poor bookkeeping has made it impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate that as much as $10 billion in funds is lost or missing.

In 1999, the court directed Interior to initiate a historical accounting project. Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb face five contempt charges that include failure to comply with the order. Their trial has ended and a decision is pending.

In December 2001, Lamberth ordered Interior to disconnect from the Internet after a computer security firm hacked into its systems and reportedly cut a check from American Indian trust funds. Much of the department is back online.

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