Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement

Judge approves $3.4B settlement for Cobell trust fund lawsuit

A federal judge approved the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit on Monday, calling it fair and reasonable for hundreds of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Judge Thomas F. Hogan issued his ruling after a daylong hearing into the settlement. He praised lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, for filing the lawsuit in June 1996 and seeing it through 15 years of hearings, trials, appeals, Congressional proceedings and negotiations

"She's accomplished more for Indian people than any other person in recent history," Hogan said.

Cobell, who recently underwent treatment for cancer, was unable to attend the hearing in person but spoke by phone to the court earlier in the day. "She put her reputation on the line and her health," Hogan said before agreeing to her request for a $2 million incentive award.

"I believe she is fully entitled to the award she's requested," Hogan said.

Hogan also approved other awards for the named plaintiffs: $200,000 for Louis LaRose, a former chairman of the Winnebago Tribe; $150,000 for Thomas Maulson, the chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; and $150,000 to Penny Cleghorn, the daughter of Mildred Cleghorn, a former chairwoman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe who was an original named plaintiff before she died.

Hogan denied a request for an award by Earl Old Person, a former chairman of the Blackfeet Nation who was removed as a named plaintiff in 2003 after he disagreed with the direction of the case.

On another issue, Hogan awarded $99 million in fees to the Cobell attorney team. That was nearly twice as much as the $50 million that the Department of Justice said was owed but far less than the $223 million that the plaintiffs requested, an amount that drew controversy on Capitol Hill and in Indian Country.

"I agree it's up to the court to set a reasonable amount," Hogan said, noting the disagreement. He said a portion of the fees, around $13.6 million, will be withheld while he resolves a dispute over them.

The fees were a common issue raised by the 12 Indian beneficiaries who raised objections to the settlement. Many accused the attorneys of being greedy, noting that the money will come out of the $3.4 billion deal.

"Let the federal government pay for it," said Ben Carnes, a member of the Choctaw Nation. "It shouldn't come at our expense."

Another common complaint was the $1.9 billion Indian land consolidation portion of the settlement. Most objectors said they can't trust the Interior Department to carry out the program in an accurate and reasonable manner.

"If this happens you will decimate the Lake Traverse Reservation," said Darlene Pipeboy, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.

"Maybe we should get some land back," said Solomon Quinn, also Sisseton-Wahpeton.

Other objectors said the settlement is insufficient to cover the lack of an historical accounting of their trust funds, also known as the Historical Accounting Class, and the mismanagement of their trust assets, also known as the Trust Administration Class. The deal provides $1,000 for the accounting and a minimum payment of $800 -- but likely more in many cases -- for mismanagement.

The amount is "based on outright thievery," said Margie Elder, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes.

About eight other beneficiaries who filed objections weren't present at the hearing. They included Charles Colombe, a former chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who was being treated for health issues, according to an associate.

In total, 92 beneficiaries filed objections, a small percentage of the estimated 360,000 who will receive a payment as part of the Historical Accounting Class and an estimated 450,000 who will receive a payment for the Trust Administration Class.

Additionally, about 1,900 people opted out of the Trust Administration Class. The overwhelming majority -- about 1,100 -- are members of the Quapaw Tribe who recently filed a trust mismanagement lawsuit of their own.

Hogan said he will issue a written opinion of his ruling from the bench.

Get the Story:
Judge OKs $3.4 billion settlement for Indians (AP 6/21)
Judge approves $3.4B settlement of Indian trust lawsuit (The Oklahoman 6/21)
Judge Approves $3.4B Settlement in Native American Class Action (The Blog of Legal Times 6/20)

Related Stories:
Schedule for fairness hearing for Cobell trust fund settlement (6/20)
Quapaw Tribe tries to opt out of Cobell trust fund settlement (6/20)
Judge to hold fairness hearing for Cobell trust fund settlement (6/17)
Jerilyn DeCoteau: Cobell settlement just doesn't feel right (6/6)
Fairness hearing in Cobell settlement scheduled for June 20 (5/26)

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