Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement | Opinion

J.D. Colbert: Cobell attorney fee request a sign of greed, betrayal

To the Mount Rushmore of Greed and Betrayal -- including among others, Benedict Arnold, Judas, Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff -- must now be added the visage of Elouise Pepion Cobell. For good measure there might be added small busts of Cobell’s attorneys.

Recently, in what appears to be the fulfillment of a bait-and-switch tactic, Cobell and her attorneys filed a motion with the court seeking $223 million in attorneys fees. Yes, that’s right: $223 MILLION! If approved, this means $223 million will be taken away from those to whom the money is really owed: the Indian IIM accountholders and beneficiaries.

Retired U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) rightfully called such a money grab as “shameful”. Mr. Dorgan is a very important voice in this matter. He is the Senator who as the former Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee championed and was instrumental in pushing the $3.4 billion settlement through the 111th Congress. In that bill, the overall attorneys fees were capped at $99 million.

“For the attorneys to argue for this amount of money (i.e., the $223 million) now undermines the very interests of the victims they were representing” stated Dorgan. “It just makes me angry. There were real victims hurt in this case. This should not be, in the end, how much the attorneys get”.

Ah, but venalism knows no shame or scruples when it comes to taking home the pot of gold. This 11th hour end run will result in $235 million for Cobell and her handful of attorneys and in contrast will amount to but “beads and trinkets” for the nearly 300,000 Indian “beneficiaries” who really need and deserve the money.

Cobell personally is due some $12 million in accordance with the congressional act authorizing the $3.4 billion settlement. Her attorneys are virtually guaranteed $99 million. Yet Cobell now publicly agitates that $99 million isn’t enough and that her attorneys should be paid $223 million.

The ultimate question I think is this: Why should we pay ANYTHING to Cobell and her attorneys for such egregious failure?

Few perhaps remember that this lawsuit started out with the well intentioned effort to obtain an accounting of the IIM monies that the U.S., through the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had been collecting on behalf of the IIM account holders for many decades.

There was a great deal of anecdotal evidence that monies that should have been flowing into these IIM accounts were not being properly credited and accounted for over the course of many decades.

The original intent of the Cobell class action lawsuit, filed in 1996, sought an accounting from the government of the monies related to the IIM accounts. So far, so good.

However, 15 years after the filing the lawsuit we have to ask: Where is the accounting for the monies? We still don’t have it. Wasn’t such accounting the purpose of the lawsuit? Why should we be paying Cobell and her attorneys $235 million for blatant failure to achieve the requested accounting of the missing monies?

And if this failure to achieve the purpose and goal of the lawsuit (i.e., the accounting) wasn’t enough, Indian Country is further betrayed by the willingness of Cobell and her attorneys to sell out the IIM accountholders for pennies on the dollar.

Cobell and her attorneys and accountants have gone on record in the past as representing that the government owed the IIM accountholders at least $176 billion. Yet, Cobell, acting on her own, settled for $1.4 billion or less than 1% of what Cobell herself claimed that the government owed the IIM accountholders.

For this failure to achieve the desired accounting of the IIM monies and for this 1% sellout of what is actually owed to the IIM accountholders, Cobell and her attorneys should be fired. Yet, the IIM accountholders are now expected to pay Cobell and her attorneys $235 million for this “victory”?

My mother is one of the estimated 300,000 IIM accountholders/IIM beneficiaries. Here in Oklahoma, there are some 50,000 such IIM accountholders. You see them everywhere, in small towns such as Dustin, OK and Wetumka, OK as well as larger cities such as Tulsa, OK and Oklahoma City, OK.

Clearly an extra $1,000 would be a meaningful and appreciated sum of money especially when considered in light of their too often impoverished condition. I understand that these IIM accountholders could use the extra money as I see firsthand how my own mother could use an extra $1,000.

At the same time, I am reminded of the $200 million Lakota Black Hills Settlement award. In 1980, the U.S. Congress appropriated and awarded the Lakota the sum of $200 million to “settle” the Lakota land claims to the Black Hills area.

The Lakota steadfastly and consistently have refused this money. I understand that this sum of money has since grown to nearly $1 billion. Yet, the Lakota-annually documented as the poorest of the poor-refuse to take these millions of dollars and instead continue to press their land claims to this sacred area.

The Cobell settlement, especially as it pertains to the hundreds of millions that will be diverted from the IIM accountholders to Cobell and her cronies, is a bad deal that simply stinks.

Those who have the temerity to public oppose this money grab are routinely slammed by Cobell and/or her attorneys. These include many of our respected tribal leaders and elders who simply are exercising their right to free speech and are otherwise looking out for the best interests of Indian people.

Here in Oklahoma, informational meetings about the settlement will be held next week. Here are the times and places: March 14th at 10am at the Wichita Tribal Housing Authority Isanti Community Gym, 1 Coronado Circle, Anadarko, OK; March 14th at 3:30pm at the Best Western Lawton, 1125 E. Gore Boulevard, Lawton, OK; March 15th at 1pm at the Choctaw Casino and Resort-Conference Center, 4418 S. Highway 69/75, Durant, OK; and March 16th at 6pm at the Tulsa Creek Indian Community Building, 8611 S. Union Avenue, Tulsa, OK.

For those IIM accountholders and/or IIM beneficiaries, I strongly urge your attendance and encourage you to express your disapproval at the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being siphoned off from your pockets into those of Cobell and her attorneys.

The Cobell settlement is generally being lionized in the press as “a great victory” for Indian Country. The passage of time, however, has a way of manifesting great truths. My sense is that with the passage of time, the tide of general public opinion will turn and it will be revealed that the Great Truth pertaining to this settlement is that it provided hundreds of millions of enrichment to the few at the expense of the many.

Unfortunately, I believe that the judge in this case will ultimately approve this settlement and the $235 million money grab by Cobell and her attorneys. The gallery of the Mount Rushmore of Greed and Betrayal will thus be increased by one. It would be fitting if such granite sculpture were to wear a necklace of beads and trinkets.

J.D. Colbert is a member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma.

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