FROM THE ARCHIVE

Private attorneys reap benefits on Cobell case

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TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2003

The Bush administration has doled out more than $3 million in taxpayer funds to private attorneys representing current and past government officials, a policy that will continue despite the effects of trust reform on other Indian programs at the Department of Interior.

In a document filed in federal court last week, the Department of Justice disclosed that it has spent $3.7 million on attorney fees. A total of 54 law firms, representing 80 present and former officials, have been approved at rates of up to $200 an hour, the government reported.

The information was made public as part of a court order in the ongoing Cobell trust fund case. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last month said the dollar figures were needed in order for the public to understand where their money was being spent. "Defendants thus have no problem with spending the taxpayers' money, as long as it benefits them," he wrote in a May 22 ruling.

The private attorney fees are authorized by the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bill, which was passed into law this past February. House leaders inserted the provision into the massive package with no tribal consultation but with the full support of the Bush administration.

Last week, the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, under the leadership of Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), its chairman, and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking member, renewed the reimbursement program. They did so despite criticizing the effects of the Cobell case on other Indian initiatives. Over the past six years, Congress has spent more than $700 million on trust reform.

"These funds could have been better used to fund health and education programs in Indian Country or directed towards reforming the outdated trust systems in the department," the subcommittee wrote.

Tribal leaders have been increasingly critical of the Bush administration's spending requests, which they say are drawing funds away from the critical Indian programs. In fiscal year 2004, for example, the Office of Special Trustee's budget will nearly double while other areas, such as education, construction and tribal priority allocations won't see any major boosts.

Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, acknowledged that trust reform is having an impact. "It is affecting our non-trust programs in that you are not seeing increases you have seen in the past," she said at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) last week. "Those increases are less than they have been in the past."

In an interview, NCAI President Tex Hall questioned the wisdom of the private attorney fee provision and called it a "contradiction" in policy. "Our budgets are getting rocked," he said. "It's robbing vital programs from Indian Country.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has publicly criticized the lawyers handling the Cobell case, charging that they have made millions on it.

But Dennis Gingold, the lead Washington, D.C., attorney, hasn't been paid since October 1998, recouping his costs by asking the court to award fees. Along with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which is a non-profit, the Cobell team has been reimbursed approximately $1 million while spending more than $8 million on litigation.

Relevant Documents:
Department of Justice filing on attorney fees (June 18, 2003)

Relevant Links:
House Appropriations Committee - http://www.house.gov/appropriations
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

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