Interior remains offline

The prospect that the Interior Department would be able to reconnect to the Internet fell through today when the judge in a long-running court case declined to approve a consent decree negotiated between representatives of the beneficiaries of American Indian trust funds and attorneys for the government.

Meanwhile, Interior had already booted up parts of its information technology systems this morning in anticipation that the consent decree would be approved, lawyers for the department said in open court. Interior officials were not available for comment, so it was not immediately clear which parts of what systems were affected.

Interior's IT systems have been disconnected from the Internet since Dec. 6, a day after U. S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the move to protect data collected and maintained under the Bureau of Indian Affairs Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS). After an emergency hearing Dec. 8, Lamberth agreed to allow Interior to reconnect the U.S. Geological Survey and National Interagency Fire Center to the Internet.

The plaintiffs filed their class-action suit five years ago seeking to straighten out the BIA's management of the trust funds, which include royalties derived from 54 million acres of Indian land held in trust by Interior.

If it had not fallen through, the latest order would have allowed Interior to bring parts of its IT systems back up so that checks could be sent to some 43,000 TAAMS beneficiaries, said according to Phillip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs.

"We believe it's extremely unfortunate that Interior doesn't seem to be taking care of the individual trust beneficiaries while they apparently have been able to meet the payroll for their own employees," Smith said. However, "the lack of [the consent decree] may impact Interior's ability to pay its own employees going forward," he said.

Interior officials did not return repeated telephone calls. The temporary restraining order that shut down Interior's IT systems ends Dec. 19. The plaintiffs have asked the court to replace the temporary order with a preliminary injunction, which carries more weight legally and would last longer.

BIA has held Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and managing revenues earned from farming and oil drilling on the lands. Neglectful management over the years has made it impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine how much money is in their accounts, according to the trust beneficiaries who filed the class-action lawsuit. That money is estimated to be billions of dollars.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt approved TAAMS for deployment in 2000. The plaintiffs in the class-action suit claim that the system, a key component of Interior's trust management reform efforts, doesn't work and that Interior has misled the court about its problems in implementing it.

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