In papers filed on Wednesday, the Cobell plaintiffs asked a federal judge to put $58 billion in the Indian trust.
Citing more than a hundred years of mismanagement, attorneys said hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries are owed the money for misuse of their land and assets. The 80-page filing accused the federal government of enriching itself by failing to disburse trust payments to tribal members across the country.
"What rightfully belongs to plaintiffs includes the value of the government's unjust enrichment and all advantages or benefits obtained in connection with its breaches of trust," attorneys wrote.
Based on data provided by the Interior Department and the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, the plaintiffs added up the money they say should have been in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) from 1887 to 2007. The numbers show IIM beneficiaries and Osage "headright" owners are owed $58 billion for the 120-year period.
The figure is more than twice the amount that the Cobell plaintiffs and other Indian organizations said they would accept to resolve the case. In June 2005, the plaintiffs proposed a $27.5 billion
settlement for the historical accounting of the IIM trust.
Key members of Congress responded with an $8 billion proposal, which the plaintiffs gave serious consideration. But the Bush administration waited until March 2007 to offer $3.5 billion to resolve the accounting, pay for future damages claims and terminate its liability for the trust.
Despite the diverging views, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, said $58 billion was low. Prior calculations by her lawyers put the accounting as high
as $176 billion, but that figure included interest, which the plaintiffs are not seeking as part of the litigation.
"We believe that our numbers are very conservative and represent the minimum harm that Indians have suffered under our broken trust system," Cobell said.
The Bush administration has vehemently disputed the idea that money is owed to IIM beneficiaries. Attorneys for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who has not taken an active role in Indian trust matters, have said the only resolution to the Cobell case is the historical accounting and nothing more.
But Judge James Robertson, who was assigned to the case in December 2006, has ruled that an accounting is impossible due to budget restraints imposed by Congress and limits placed on the effort by the Interior Department. At a hearing earlier this month, he rejected the government's notion that the Cobell plaintiffs have to go to another court to find justice.
"When you tell me that the law of the case says the only relief is an historical accounting ... that doesn't mean very much if an historical accounting is impossible," Robertson told a Department of Justice attorney. "Then what, is there no relief? Is that the government's position?"
Robertson will hold a trial starting on June 9 to finally put an end to the case. He hopes to issue a ruling by the end of the summer.
The Bush administration has until April 9 to respond to the plaintiffs' filing.
MEMORANDUM IN SUPPORT OF
EQUITABLE RESTITUTION AND DISGORGEMENT
(March 19, 2008)
Historical Accounting Decision:Findings
of Fact and Conclusions of Law
(January 30, 2008)
Trial Order:Cobell v.
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com
v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm