Another Interior office given Internet go-ahead

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service has received approval to reconnect some of its sites to the Internet.

MMS went off-line as part of a departmentwide shutdown ordered by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in December.

Lamberth pulled the plug on Interior after computer security firm Predictive Systems Inc. broke into its systems and reportedly cut a check from funds held in trust for American Indians.

As a result of the shutdown, MMS has been unable to process payments. The agency receives royalty money from companies that extract minerals from lands held in trust. The revenues totaled almost $10 million last year and more than $120 billion since the agency's inception in 1982.

Court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran last month approved the partial reopening, which also includes restoring e-mail capabilities and Internet access for informational purposes.

"Resuming operation of our core accounting systems will enable MMS to receive and process mineral revenue reports and payments, and conduct its full range of related financial services for mineral revenue recipients and other program beneficiaries," MMS Director Johnnie Burton said in a news release.

MMS is telling companies to start submitting royalty and production reports again to its e-commerce provider, Peregrine Systems Inc. But the beneficiaries aren't counting their money yet.

"We'll believe it when we see it," said Philip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs in a long-running case over Interior's alleged mismanagement of American Indian money. The plaintiffs recently asked Lamberth to consider additional contempt charges against government officials for destroying electronic evidence.

According to the motion, the "plaintiffs believe that there is no doubt that this court can and should hold defendants and their counsel in civil and, where appropriate, criminal contempt."

Balaran reported in July 2001 that Interior officials had repeatedly and willfully destroyed individual Indian trust documents, including e-mails.

The plaintiffs, in their motion, "concur with the findings of the master that the pervasive spoliation of evidence, and the repeated misrepresentations of defendants and their counsel, constitute a fraud on this court."

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