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Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement
McCain blames Bush administration for Cobell delay


The Bush administration's inaction threaten to derail the $8 billion settlement of the Cobell trust fund lawsuit, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said on Thursday.

McCain said the administration has yet to respond to the settlement proposal even though Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised to do so over five weeks ago. "To date, we have had no official response and the window for action this year is closing fast," McCain said.

In hopes of getting an answer, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which McCain chairs, is sending a letter to Kempthorne. "I think it's incomprehensible that the administration would not be able to come up with at least a response with what is a product of years of effort on the part of this committee and the interested parties," McCain said.

The comments came during the confirmation hearing for Carl J. Artman as the next assistant secretary for Indian affairs. In his testimony, he said he supported resolution of the Cobell case.

"The sooner this litigation ends, the sooner we improve our relationship with tribes, and the sooner we increase for Indians and Alaska Natives the impact of the benefits of that relationship," he told the committee, whose members approved his nomination after a quick voice vote.

But after the hearing, Artman said he didn't know why his department hasn't responded to the settlement bill. In an interview, he said he has had "very little" dealings with the Cobell case despite serving as the solicitor in charge of Indian affairs since February of this year.

Attempts to obtain a comment from Shane Wolfe, the Interior Department's spokesperson, were unsuccessful yesterday.

"Please take this message back to the Secretary," McCain told Artman. "We understand he's been working hard to find a settlement solution but if we don't act now, this historic opportunity will be lost."

The administration has been blamed repeatedly for delaying the settlement. McCain was ready to advance the bill back in early August but held off after meeting personally with Kempthorne and Gonzales a day before the markup session.

At the time, McCain expressed confidence that the administration would live up to its promise to resolve the case.

But that setback came on top of Interior's year-plus silence on S.1439, the Indian Trust Reform Act. Since it was introduced back in July 2005, the department has not submitted an official response to the measure or proposed an alternative.

"No one in Indian Country believes the administration actually needs any more time to consider this resolution," Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff, said a month ago.

Meanwhile, the committee has continued to work on a new version of the bill. During the Congressional recess in August, staffers held a series of meetings throughout the country to hear from tribal leaders and individual Indians about the settlement.

At the last meeting, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, many of the comments were negative. Individual Indians said the $8 billion settlement wasn't enough but a Republican staffer said McCain was sticking to the figure.

The case was filed in June 1996, during the Clinton administration. Three Clinton officials, including two Cabinet secretaries, were held in contempt of court for their inaction.

The litigation continued through the Bush administration, whose officials have appealed every single ruling. Their latest campaign resulted in the removal of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth from the case.

The Cobell plaintiffs are seeking to reinstate Lamberth. They asked for a rehearing before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senate Confirmation Hearing:
Webcast | Carl Artman Testimony

Relevant Documents:
Staff Draft of Cobell Settlement Bill (Posted by ITMA)

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Statement:
INDIAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE POSTPONES CONSIDERATION OF TRUST REFORM LEGISLATION (August 2, 2006)

Indian Trust Reform Act:
S.1439 | H.R.4322

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm