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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - An official appointed by Congress to fix a system of royalties from American Indian lands has "utterly failed" to train workers in how to handle vital records, a court-appointed watchdog said Thursday.

"Left unchecked, the consequences to Indian beneficiaries could prove irreversible," wrote special master Alan Balaran in documents filed Thursday.

The Interior Department manages $500 million annually in royalties from oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and other uses of Indian land.

For more than a century, however, the Indian trust money was sloppily managed by the department, and money intended for the Indians was lost, misappropriated or never collected.

That is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who appointed Balaran to supervise reform efforts. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the government squandered more than $10 billion.

Congress has also told the department to fix the system, and created the office of special trustee for that purpose.

But despite promises three years ago from senior officials in the office to train employees to handle trust fund documents correctly, Balaran found employee training to be lacking.

"Unfortunately, this representation stands in a long line of broken promises," Balaran wrote. The training efforts "add to the grievous perception that trust records deserve no more special care than an agency personnel file, a payroll record or a requisition for paper clips."

Lamberth is currently contemplating holding Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court for failing to comply with his order to overhaul the management of the trust fund. He heard 29 days of testimony at a contempt trial late last year and earlier this year.

Norton has proposed creating a new bureau within Interior to manage the trust funds, but that idea has been resisted by Indian tribal leaders.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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