Judge approves settlement over Indian royalties

By Matthew Daly
Washington (AP) June 2011

A federal judge approved a $3.4 billion settlement over mismanaged Indian royalties in a case that represents the largest settlement ever approved against the U.S. government.

Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., claimed in the 15-year-old suit that for more than a century, U.S. officials stole or squandered billions in royalties intended for American Indians in exchange oil, gas, grazing and other leases.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, in approving the settlement after a daylong hearing, said the legitimacy of Cobell’s claims could not be questioned.

“The government mismanaged these resources on a staggering scale,” Hogan said.

The settlement does not make up for the losses Indian tribes suffered for more than a century, Hogan added, but “at least it provides some certainty” to hundreds of thousands of individual Indians who will now receive payments of least $1,000 each from the government. Many will receive substantially more money.

Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, will receive $2 million, and three other named plaintiffs will receive payments ranging from $150,000 to $200,000 each.

“The process has gone on long enough,” Hogan said, noting that hundreds of potential beneficiaries have died in the 15 years the case has wound through the courts and Congress.

The government and lawyers representing Cobell settled the lawsuit in December 2009 after years of court battles and appeals. Congress approved the settlement at the end of last year, and President Barack Obama signed it into law. But the case still needed Hogan’s approval, which he provided late Monday after a daylong hearing on the merits of the case and legal fees to be assessed.

In a statement, Obama said the decision “marks another important step forward in the relationship between the federal government and Indian Country.”

“Resolving this dispute was a priority for my administration, and we will engage in government-to-government consultations with tribal nations regarding the land consolidation component of the settlement to ensure that this moves ahead at an appropriate pace and in an appropriate manner,” Obama said. “And going forward, my administration will continue to strengthen our relationship with Indian Country.”

Under the settlement approved, $1.5 billion will go to at least 300,000 Indian account holders. Another $1.9 billion will go to the government to buy back and consolidate tribal land. An additional $60 million will go to a scholarship fund for Indian students. 

In a controversial decision, Hogan awarded Cobell’s lawyers a total of $99 million – less than half the $223 million they were seeking but nearly double the $50 million government lawyers had recommended.

Hogan denied a request by Cobell’s legal team for $10.5 million in legal expenses incurred since the case was filed in 1996.