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Judge questions Interior capabilities
FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2002

Last Updated: 4:12 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said today he was "dumbfounded" that the Department of Interior's computer shutdown has dragged on for more than more than three months.

During a status hearing in federal court this afternoon, Lamberth said he didn't understand why it has taken so long for the department to resolve its information technology woes. "Frankly, I have been dumbfounded that it has taken this amount of time," he said.

He contrasted the Interior's slowness with that of the Department of Treasury, which also has computer problems and is a defendant in the case. "They did seem to have the capability and ability to move very quickly," Lamberth said of Secretary Paul O'Neill's team.

"That doesn't seem to happen at the Interior," he said.

Saying Treasury officials and attorneys appear to be doing "a decent job," Lamberth suggested that the Interior ask them for assistance. "There may be some government expertise there," he opined.

Department of Justice attorney John Stemplewicz explained there were still Indian beneficiaries who haven't received their payments. The Fort Hall agency in Idaho, which serves the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the Fort Berthold agency in North Dakota, which serves the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, have not been able to process checks in a timely manner, he said.

But he disputed the fact that National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall hasn't been paid. Hall, who is also chairman of the North Dakota tribe, testified last month that he typically receives five checks in December but hasn't seen any funds.

Stemplewicz reported that Hall has indeed been paid "$85.92" on March 6 but did not elaborate on how the money was generated nor if it represented a full payment. He acknowledged that other tribal members haven't been paid because an employee at the agency had a death in the family.

"They are trying to catch up right now," he said.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney representing the Indian beneficiaries, complained that the payments the government has made so far don't represent the money that is owed. "The absence of information is just as disconcerting as what you've been told," he said to Lamberth.

Gingold also charged that the Interior has violated federal law by not disbursing the checks on time. "The longer this goes on, the more desperate people are getting," he said.

The estimated oil and gas payments made last month were more than 60 days late, Stemplewicz admitted. Another round of those checks is expected March 23 or 24, he said.

Lamberth instructed the Interior to provide a written status report next Friday. Otherwise, he said he might consider imposing an order on the department.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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