Interior to start payment processing
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The Department of Interior today plans to turn on a major computer system that has been idle for more than a month, hoping some royalty payments can be sent to Indian Country as soon as possible.

But since the Integrated Records Management System (IRMS) has to work through a seven-week backlog of transactions, officials don't know when checks will go out the door. Previously, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb has told tribal leaders he was ready to issue money immediately.

Also, since permission to operate a related system has not been granted by a federal court, only grazing payments will be made at this time. Oil and gas royalties, which represent a larger dollar value of funds, are in limbo as a result.

IRMS is one of several computer systems which the department turned off in response to a court-ordered shutdown. Based on a report which showed numerous security vulnerabilities, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told the Interior to cut Internet access to systems which house, or provide access to, the assets of 300,000 American Indians.

After negotiations with the court's special master Alan Balaran, permission was given to restart IRMS -- without public Internet access -- this week. Bureau of Indian Affairs regional offices will be allowed to process transactions beginning today, said McCaleb.

To work around the network limits, and to protect trust data, spokesperson Nedra Darling said all transactions will pass through a virtual private network, or VPN. This will allow IRMS to communicate with another system in order to write checks, she said.

The shutdown has angered tribal leaders and Indian landowners, who haven't received their money since November, throughout the country. Members of Congress have also voiced increased displeasure with Secretary Gale Norton's handling of the situation.

Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the panel which confirmed Norton, spoke with the secretary on the phone to discuss the issue. Particularly concerned about Navajo tribal members, he told Norton to start manually issuing checks next week if the shutdown is not resolved.

"This is a horrible situation and we cannot rest until these checks are in the hands of the people who are entitled to them," Bingaman recalled of the conversation. "They have already waited too long for the government uphold its responsibility,"

"For thousands of Navajos, these royalty checks are literally a life line."

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee, which confirmed Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, was upset about the holdup as well, said aides.

Whether the pair will be satisfied with the latest development is unknown, as policies vary from region to region. In the case of the Navajo Nation, council member George Arthur told Indianz.Com that 20,000 tribal members are affected.

Depending on the area, grazing payments -- unlike oil and gas -- are not made on a monthly basis. In Oklahoma, for instance, landowners often receive grazing royalties just once a year every January.

In regions where oil and gas is common, such as the Rocky Mountain and Navajo areas, the funds are distributed monthly and are more critical.

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming have started manually processing royalties, according to the Associated Press. Tribal members haven't received money since November, said a tribal attorney.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior moving to close trust fund accounts (1/25)

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

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