2012-06-06 / Front Page

Cobell Disbursements May Be In The Mail Soon

Landmark Settlement Upheld
By Kay Heitkamp,
Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the $3.4 billion settlement agreement reached previously between the federal government and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose individual land trust royalties were mismanaged by the Department of the Interior under the auspices of Ken Salazar.

Cobell v Salazar was 15 years in the making and the largest class action lawsuit ever filed against the U.S. government. Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell initially filed the lawsuit in 1996. The case involved allegations of mismanagement and lack of accounting for individual trust funds and lands held in trust. The Department of the Interior held the trust monies for land allotted to Native Americans under the Dawes Act of 1887.

Congress first approved the settlement in December of 2010, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan approved it after a June 2011 hearing. According to Hogan, the settlement may not be as much as some wished, but the deal provides a way out of a legal morass and provides some certainty for the beneficiaries after an incredibly long wait.

Two classes of individuals are represented in the class action. The Historical Accounting Class is comprised of individual Indians who were alive on Sept. 30, 2009, who had an open Individual Indian Money (IIM) account anytime between Oct. 25, 1994 and Sept. 30, 2009, and whose account had at least one cash transaction.

The Trust Administration Class includes individual Indians alive on Sept. 30, 2009, who had an IIM Account at any time from 1985 through Sept. 30, 2009, recorded in currently available electronic data in federal government systems, as well as individual Indians who, as of Sept. 30, 2009, had a recorded or demonstrable interest in land held in trust or restricted status.

The estates of deceased Class Members are also eligible to receive a settlement distribution if the deceased beneficiary’s account was open as of Sept. 30, 2009, or their land interest was open in probate as of that date.

The ruling means that settlement checks may be mailed to members of all the classes within a few weeks. A $1.5 billion fund, part of the $3.4 billion total settlement, has been set aside to pay both classes of beneficiaries.

Every plaintiff who meets the eligibility requirements of the Historical

Accounting Class that includes holders of IIM accounts will receive a single payment of $1,000. The same plaintiffs may also be members of the Trust Administration Class as trust landowners and, if eligible, will each receive $800 in addition to the $1,000 payment. The $800 for the second class is in addition to a share of the balance of the settlement funds as calculated by a formula. Another $1.9 billion is to be used by the government to purchase fractionated land allotments from willing individuals and turn those consolidated allotments over to the tribe. An education scholarship for young Indians also would be established under the agreement.

However, additional appeals could delay the disbursement of settlement checks. In the most recent appeal, Kimberly Craven of Boulder, Colorado objected that the settlement did not include an actual accounting for how much money the government lost and said the deal would over-compensate a few beneficiaries. Craven’s characterization of the settlement as taking shortcuts “is to ignore the history of this hard-fought litigation and the obstacles to producing an historical accounting,” the judges said in their ruling.

In appealing the settlement, Craven and others claimed the deal creates a conflict between the beneficiaries because some would be overpaid, while others would be undercompensated for their claims.

“Creating a lump-sum award without an accounting creates an arbitrary payout system without knowing who is actually owed what,” Craven argued.

The appellate judges dismissed the challenge by Craven, holding that the government would be unable to perform an accurate accounting, the deal is fair, and it is the best that can be hoped for to avoid years of additional litigation. The lack of records created a problem in creating an accurate accounting of who was owed what, and the cost of creating such a record for each beneficiary would have cost more than what they were actually owed.

For more information visit www.indiantrust.com

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