Interior inches ahead with online operations

Two months after a judge ordered the Interior Department to shut down its Internet connection, the department has taken tentative steps to restore operations, but major systems remain off-line.

Last week, the agency restored its Integrated Records Management System, enabling it to process the first payments to American Indians since the shutdown, said Neal McCaleb, Interior assistant secretary and director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The system handles per capita payments and allocations from grazing leases, but not royalties from oil and gas drilling.

As of Jan. 31, 1,944 checks totaling $298,772.43 had been sent, McCaleb said.

However, about 43,000 beneficiaries had been waiting for payments, and it's unclear how many still are. Checks for similar payments in December 2000 totaled almost $15 million, according to Phillip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs in the case against Interior.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth pulled the plug on Interior's Internet connection in December after computer security firm Predictive Systems Inc. broke into its systems and, reportedly, cut a check from funds held in trust for American Indians.

The shutdown has made Interior "unable to prepare checks," McCaleb said in a Jan. 31 letter to tribal leaders.

"I think that we are all frustrated that this isn't moving more rapidly," Justice Department attorney Sandra Spooner told Lamberth Jan. 31.

The agency is contending with an intensive process, according to Spooner. "What has developed is a system that goes beyond what we envisioned," she said, referring to the degree of checking and rechecking being done on each system. "Perfection is not something we're going to achieve."

So far, Interior has gotten permission to reconnect four systems, including the Social Service Automated System, which gives assistance to impoverished American Indians, she said.

The agency has yet to reconnect the Minerals Management Service, which receives royalty money from companies that extract minerals from lands held in trust for American Indians. "We're very hopeful that the system can come up soon," Spooner said.

The plaintiffs took another view. "As you might expect, plaintiffs disagree with everything just said," said Dennis Gingold, lead attorney for the American Indian plaintiffs.

The beneficiaries who filed the lawsuit have asked Lamberth to place thousands of individual trust accounts in receivership out of Interior's control.

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Gale Norton has proposed creating a Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management.

The United South and Eastern Tribes, which represents 24 of the 26 tribes in BIA's eastern region, provided an alternate proposal to Norton's.

The tribal group suggested keeping trust management within BIA and consolidating functions under a commissioner, who would serve within the office of the assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Under the plan, a Tribal Trust Advisory Board, made up of tribally designated representatives, would guide the commissioner.


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