December 08, 2009

Obama to settle Indian trust lawsuit

$3.4 + Billion Settlement Announced in Federal Mismanagement of Individual Indian Trust

Plaintiffs Compromise to Achieve Justice and Help Impoverished Indians, Ending 13-Year Battle with U.S. Departments of Interior and TreasuryThe American Indian Plaintiffs, in a long-running class action lawsuit against the federal government for mismanagement of the individual Indian trust, today announced a Settlement with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Under the terms of the Settlement in Cobell v. Salazar, the federal government will create a $1.4 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates a $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and it includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department's accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward. This Settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and Settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation.

The agreement was announced today at a press conference at the Department of Interior by Elouise P. Cobell of Browning, MT, lead Plaintiff in the class action, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., and U.S. Secretary of Interior Kenneth L. Salazar.

"We have achieved a measure of justice and financial compensation for individual Indians whose trust accounts were mismanaged by our government," said Ms. Cobell, Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation. "Indians did not receive the full financial Settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best Settlement we could. This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life including the possibility of one day attending college can now be realized."
Obama administration moves to settle Cobell

By Rob CapricciosoThe litigation has centered on the argument that the government mismanaged billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior for Indian trustees since 1887.

The case has gone through numerous appeals since it was first filed in 1996.

If the settlement is approved, a $1,000 check will be sent to each member of the class, said Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli.

Then, a formula established by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the overseeing court, would provide more settlement funds to individual class members.

President Barack Obama said he was proud of the decision to settle.

“As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much,” the president said in a statement.

“I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today. …”

Elouise Cobell said that she was thankful to Interior for the gesture, adding she had thought the case would be settled long ago.

“Today we have an administration that is listening to us,” the lead plaintiff said. She had expressed dissatisfaction with the administration last spring that it had not focused on the issue more quickly.

Cobell said that there is “no doubt” that the settlement amount is “significantly less than the full accounting to with the class members are entitled.”

One settlement figure offered by lawyers for the Indian plaintiffs during legal proceedings was $47 billion.
Some historical context on what the Indians could've and perhaps should've gotten:

Bush administration objects to Cobell data request
Tuesday, September 11, 2007The Cobell plaintiffs, along with national Indian and tribal organizations, have called for a $27.5 billion payment, which includes interest. The figure is based on the assumption that a certain percentage of the $13 billion throughput was paid to the proper beneficiaries.

Independent experts have agreed that a settlement should be in the billions, with figures ranging from $6 billion to $10 billion. A bill that was introduced last year would have provided $8 billion to end the case.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, believes account holders are owed in the low millions. A counterproposal to the settlement bill would have provided up to $3.5 billion to end the Cobell case and extinguish any future damages claims.
Comment:  So the Indians got less than they thought they deserved: $27.5 to $48 billion. Less than independent experts thought they should get: $6-10 billion. And less than some members of Congress were willing to give them: $8 billion. But at least they'll get something.

In Indians to Get 1% of Money Owed, a judge ruled the Indians were due only $455 million. Fortunately, that ruling didn't stand, and the plaintiffs are getting eight times that amount. As with most settlements, the number could be better, but it could be worse.

After all the talking and consulting, this is a big achievement for the Obama administration. Much bigger than the tribal summit, which hasn't produced any concrete results yet. Obama has done what Clinton and Bush couldn't do: settle the trust-fund lawsuit.

This may be the most important piece of Indian legislation since Nixon signed his pro-Indian legislation in the early 1970s. Or at least since Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Kudos to Obama and everyone involved.

For more on the subject, see Dean Slams McCain on Cobell.

Below:  Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell.

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