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Court allows Interior computers to go online; Trust account information at heart of recent trouble

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has issued a stay temporarily rescinding a court order that had resulted in the shutdown this week of hundreds of Department of Interior computers in Billings.

Dan DuBray, spokesman for the department, said he is not sure when thousands of computers nationwide will be up and running again. Some have been shut down for more than a week, but the stay was issued late Wednesday.

An order disconnecting Interior from the Internet was issued March 16 by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. He is presiding in a case brought against Interior by tribal members across the country who maintain that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has lost track of millions, possibly billions, of dollars in royalty and fee payments that should have been disbursed to the tribes and individual members.

 

Those payments usually represent income from oil, gas, mineral, timber and grazing leases. Payments are made to the government acting as trustee for tribal members and tribes. The government then distributes those payments to individual and tribal land owners. Most of these financial transactions are handled electronically.

Lamberth determined in his order that Interior Department access to most Internet functions had to be severed because the department had not been able to effectively secure confidential information in more than 300,000 Indian accounts.

Although the BIA is the target of the lawsuit before Lamberth, his order affected all Interior Department agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Those agencies, along with the BIA, have a major presence in Billings and in the rest of Montana.

In a press release issued from Interior Secretary Gale Norton's office, the department said a majority of Interior's 110,000 computers were disconnected by the order, although only 6 percent of them - about 6,600 computers - have access to Indian trust information. Of those, only 1,100 were connected to the Internet, the release said.

The effect of Lamberth's decision was widespread. The BLM operates an estimated 250 computers in its Billings offices.

Only branch supervisors and employees working in firefighting, safety, law enforcement, telecommunications and information-resources management have had access to the Internet since the judge's order was implemented Monday.

"They physically disconnected our computers,'' said Greg Albright, public-affairs chief for BLM in Billings, on Wednesday. "We can't use them at all. I can't write a letter, look at a spread sheet, call up a database and I can't answer an e-mail.''

The public, increasingly doing business with the agency online, couldn't communicate electronically. Without a computer connection, members of the public were unable to comment online on land-use proposals, find out what campsites are open, order maps and check on land status without writing a letter or visiting the office.

Albright said that, in February alone, 1 million page views were recorded on the BLM Web site.

Also disrupted by Lamberth's order were payments to Individual Indian Money accounts that were to have been sent on Wednesday.

Account holders typically receive two payments - the main payment issued early in the month and a second, supplemental payment near the end of the month.

Interior said the first March payment went out before Lamberth's order. But members of the Fort Peck Tribes said Tuesday that they had not received the first payment and were told that it was the result of the judge's order.

Previous rulings from Lamberth's court have kept the BIA off the Internet for the last few years, said Bill Benjamin, deputy director for BIA's Rocky Mountain Region headquartered in Billings. The latest ruling further complicated the agency's ability to function, he said.

BIA employees had some access to computers at BLM and BOR to acquire and distribute information, he said. But Lambreth's order shut down those, too.

He said one example of the problems created by loss of the Internet is the difficulty in posting job announcements on the government's official site, usajobs.opm.gov.

Lost access to the Internet also complicated the use of credit cards for procurement and travel, Benjamin said. Employees are required to use the cards, he said, which makes it necessary to communicate with the bank that issued them.

A lot of employees are taking their work home and accessing the Internet on their own computers, he said. Sometimes they are sent to the public library or other federal agencies that had Internet access, Benjamin said.

"We really do have some good, dedicated employees who do whatever it takes to get the job done,'' he said.

 

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com.

 


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