Interior reverses position on royalty checks
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After telling tribes and a federal judge it couldn't process millions of dollars in royalty checks without the use of the Internet and a critical computer system, the Department of Interior on Tuesday said it had changed its mind.

In an appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said the department had waited too long to receive permission from a federal court to restart a critical computer system. Operated by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency of the Interior, the system has been shut down since December 5 per a court order.

But in the face of criticism from tribal leaders, Indian landowners and members of Congress, Griles said the Interior would go ahead and disburse money to thousands who have gone without their own money since November. "We're going to cut the checks as soon as the system can cut those," he told the committee.

"I've waited long enough for the court to say yes to our proposal," he continued. "They haven't. We have to pay these individuals."

Based on historic data, the department plans on sending oil and gas checks as soon as it can, officials said. Some beneficiaries may get more money than usual or less, and once the MMS system is turned on, any discrepancies would be corrected later, according to the department.

"We're going to take this and use this process to pay these individuals," said Griles, telling Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that action would be taken quickly.

After the hearing, Bingaman said he was pleased with the department's response, although it came later than he expected. In January, he wrote Norton to push her on the payments and personally called her when no response was received.

"The fact that the Interior Department has committed to sending checks immediately is good news," Bingaman said. "This is exactly the result I was looking for, though I wish it had not taken the department so long to arrive at this solution."

Tribal leaders, too, have been pressing the department to find a workaround. But at several consultation meetings held throughout the country, they were told by department officials that approval by the court was needed and that the type of solution Griles announced yesterday was not possible.

Government lawyers were also telling U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that the MMS system needed to be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order for payments to be processed. Department of Justice attorney Sandra Spooner said the transaction backlog was so great that the system needed time to correct itself.

In the meantime, only three computer systems with direct impact on Indian Country -- the Trust Fund Accounting System (TFAS), the Social Service Automated System (SSAS) and the Integrated Records Management System (IRMS) -- have been turned on. The department, under the direction of Associate Deputy James Cason, has been working with special master Alan Balaran to resolve the numerous security holes.

In testimony to Congress last week, Secretary Gale Norton said 90 percent of her department was still offline, although the National Park Service web sites have been restored. She will testify today in her contempt trial and is expected to be asked questions about the state of information technology security, one of the five charges she faces.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Griles gets grilled by Congress (2/13)

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

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