Bush Administration Proposes Pennies On the Dollar In Settlement To Indians

| Fri Mar. 9, 2007 5:15 PM PST

Here's the latest in the continuation of the epic Cobell v. Kempthorne lawsuit—a veritable Odyssey for our times, chronicled in Mother Jones (Sept-Oct 2005) "Accounting Coup." Ten years and three Secretaries of the Interior have passed since Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker and MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, filed suit against the government, in pursuit of money long overdue her and 500,000 Indians. Background from the MoJo article:

[Cobell's] fight takes the forms of Cobell v. Norton [now Kempthorne], a federal lawsuit on behalf of a half-million Indians across America whose individual property is held in trust by the Department of the Interior… Interior leases these private Indian lands to oil, timber, and agricultural corporations and other commercial entities, then pays the Indians the revenues those leases yield. But Cobell claims the government has been grossly negligent in its 118 years of managing the Individual Indian Trust, treating the Indians not as clients and beneficiaries but as easy marks.

While generations of non-Indians have become rich harvesting the abundant resources of private Indian lands—which once included virtually all the oil fields of Oklahoma—Indian landowners have been paid only erratically, and far less than their due. Consequently, even landowning Indians remain among the nation's poorest citizens, joining the 23 percent of Indians in America living in poverty, and the nearly 40 percent who are unemployed. Some tribes fare even worse, and the Blackfeet suffer a 34 percent poverty rate and a 70 percent unemployment rate. Overall, Indians are more than twice as poor as the average American.

Cobell filed her lawsuit in 1996 after years of kinder entreaties failed, demanding payment of all unpaid revenues from Indian leases for the past century, a tally of past revenues, and a new accounting system to deal with future revenues. According to Cobell's forensic accountants, the government owes $176 billion to individual Indian landowners, averaging $352,000 per plaintiff, making this monetarily the largest class-action lawsuit ever launched.

Now the government has proposed paying $7 billion. Seems like a lot, right? But with those monies Interior hopes to settle Cobell's lawsuit on behalf of the Individual Indian Trust and a whole lot more. Hey, this is the kind of accounting we should all get to practise when it comes time to pay our taxes… From IndianTrust.com:

The money would end the more than 250 tribal cases as well as the billion-dollar Cobell lawsuit over individual Indian funds. In exchange, the administration demands Congress extinguish the government's liability for all future trust claims. Not only would the money be used to resolve the lawsuits, it would be used to pay for trust reform programs at the Interior Department. In the letter, Gonzales and Kempthorne cite fractionation, information technology security and a controversial initiative to shift all management duties to tribes and individual Indians.

The proposal was immediately met with resistance from the Cobell plaintiffs. Keith Harper, a Washington, D.C., attorney for the plaintiffs, called it a "bad faith offer. You cannot say that you have a potentially $200 billion liability [for tribes] and try to settle that, plus Cobell, plus trust reform, plus IT security, for $7 billion," he said yesterday… The offer is also likely to draw objections from tribal leaders, who rejected the same proposal last fall when it was released by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona).

More from an update on IndianTrust.com:

Far from settling the long-running, acrimonious Cobell case, the government proposes that Indian beneficiaries further litigate the Cobell case. At the same time, the government's letter is an open invitation to more litigation.

Just consider that Interior's own experts have estimated that the government's liability in the Cobell case (excluding all other claims) to be at least $10 billion, and that it could exceed $40 billion. Now consider that the Kempthorne-Gonzales letter proposes a $7 billion cap that eliminates "all existing and potential individual and tribal claims for trust accounting, cash and land mismanagement, and other related claims, along with the resolution of other related matters . . . that permit recurrence of . . . litigation."

The scope is breathtaking, and the injury to Indians everywhere can only be described as catastrophic. The Attorney General himself has said that the tribal accounts alone are valued at $200 billion.

Notable though: the letter is the first time the administration has offered any type of number in association with the trust debacle. The AP via the Great Falls Tribune reports:

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he will hold hearings on the proposal and said the settlement offer is the first time the federal government has acknowledged a multibillion dollar liability for mismanagement of the trust funds over the past century.

Interior Department spokesman Shane Wolfe said the department looks forward to working with Congress on the proposal. Congress has attempted to wade into the dispute in recent years, but has yet to find resolution. "We believe this proposal looks to the future," he said.

Yeah, right. Same old stonewalling, double-crossing future, more like it.

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