yahoo news Interior Accused of Shortchanging Indians By ROBERT GEHRKE, Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON - A court-appointed investigator has resigned from the multibillion-dollar lawsuit by American Indians against the Interior Department, contending the government wanted him off the case after he found evidence that energy companies got special treatment at the expense of impoverished Indians. Alan Balaran, the special master in the case, contends his findings could have cost the companies millions of dollars and that department officials with ties to the industry "could not let this happen." "Justice has been much too long in coming for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. ... Billions of dollars are at stake," according to the resignation letter made public Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. Balaran, who submitted his resignation on Monday, said his continued involvement in the case would only be a distraction. The department had not seen the letter and declined comment Tuesday. Balaran reported in August that private landowners near the Navajo Nation got as much as 20 times more money than Indian landowners from gas pipeline companies for rights to cross their land. He also found holes in the department's Internet security that could put hundreds of millions of dollars in Indian royalties at risk from computer hackers. As a result, the department's Internet connections have been shut down three different times. Keith Harper, a lawyer for the Indians, praised Balaran's work. "Now we see what they do when you go and investigate something that touches their sacred cow, which is energy companies," Harper said. The class-action suit, filed in 1996, on behalf of more than 300,000 Indians, alleges that for more than a century the government had mismanaged, misplaced or stolen billions of dollars in oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties that the department, by law and treaty, was assigned to manage on the Indians' behalf. In 1999, Lamberth found that the department had breached its trust responsibility. He ordered the department to tally what the Indians were owed. In a positive development, the parties had agreed late Friday to name two mediators Charles Byron Renfrew, a former federal judge and Chevron Oil executive, and John G. Bickerman, a Washington lawyer and professional mediator to conduct nonbinding settlement negotiations. It was the first time in nearly three years that the sides held talks and the first time they agreed to mediators.