Special master quits Interior case

The court-appointed special master in the Cobell v. Norton case has quit and accused the administration officials of pushing for his removal simply because they didn't like his findings.

Special Master Alan Balaran has resigned from the Cobell v. Norton case in the latest development in the Interior Department's troubles related to charges that it mismanaged billions of dollars of Indian trust funds and did not protect them from online intruders. Interior's Internet access has been temporarily cut off three times already because of the case.

It remains to be seen what effect Balaran's departure will have on the progress of the lawsuit, which is stretching into its eighth year. But in his resignation letter earlier this week to Royce Lamberth, the district court judge who appointed him, Balaran accused the Interior and Justice Departments of seeking his removal under the guise of punishing him for an alleged ethics breach in which he enlisted a former Interior contractor to probe the agency's handling of the trust funds.

Balaran contended that evidence points to a systemic failure on the part of Interior officials to oversee energy companies leasing minerals on Indian lands. Better regulation "could cost the very companies with which senior Interior officials maintain close ties millions of dollars," because those firms have been "routinely paying individual Indians much less than they pay non-Indians for oil and gas pipeline easements across the Southwest," Balaran wrote.

He argued that his investigations revealed that Interior doesn't carefully monitor oil and gas leasing activities to individual Indian lands, and that the agency sought his removal in order to stifle such findings.

In a rebuttal statement, the Interior charged Balaran with having "abandoned all pretense of the impartiality that is required of a judicial officer." It continued that Balaran's "preposterous charges of government conspiracy...[are] based entirely on innuendo, supposition and baseless speculation."

Interior advocates say that Balaran simply resigned before he might have been removed. The D.C Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear one motion to have Balaran removed with an additional motion for removal slated for April 8.

On March 25, Interior returned to the Internet access status that it had before the latest shutoff on March 15. Areas of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians remain disconnected because they are still subject to an earlier disconnection order. The Internet was restored after a federal appeals court ruling blocked a lower court's decision to shut off Internet access to most of the agency. The current litigation has an eight-year history, including a 2001 finding by court consultants that the multibillion-dollar trust accounts were not secure.

Interior has about 110,000 computers, 10,000 of which serve Indian constituencies. Of the 6,600 Interior computers that house individual Indian trust data, about 5,500 of those have not been connected to the Internet since December 5, 2001.

In a letter yesterday to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the only sitting senator of Indian descent and chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Interior Secretary Gale Norton vigorously defended her agency's efforts to address security concerns.

"We have installed sophisticated technologies, developed and adopted perimeter security standards, conducted monthly scanning to identify and mitigate potential systems vulnerabilities and trained tens of thousands of employees n system security responsibilities," wrote Norton, who stated that Interior has committed more than $80 million to bolster Internet security.

Interior spokesperson Tina Kreisher said that the agency has asked that the case be dismissed.


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