Senator solicits input on Indian trust settlement

Washington, D.C. (AP) May 2010

The vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said during April he is concerned about the fairness of a proposed $3.4 billion settlement against the government for mismanaging Indian trust funds and is suggesting some revisions.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said he thinks attorney fees and costs should be capped at $50 million – up to $50 million less than proposed. He also suggested setting aside $50 million of the settlement money for certain lawsuit participants who receive “insufficient or unfair” amounts under the settlement’s payment formula. The money would be distributed by a “special master” appointed by the court.

The Wyoming Republican called on tribal leaders across the country to share their input.

“Since it was announced last December, there have been many questions asked about some aspects of the proposed settlement,” Barrasso said in a release. “Some people support the settlement in its current form. Some do not. In fact, some voices have expressed very strong concerns about it.

Barrasso’s comments follow statements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging swift action on the settlement.

The Obama administration and plaintiffs agreed to the deal in December to resolve claims dating back more than a century that American Indians were swindled out of royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases.

The proposed agreement calls for the Interior Department to distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 American Indians nationwide. Most participants in the class-action lawsuit, filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., would receive at least $1,500.

The settlement also requires the government to spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations, and create a $60 million Indian Education Scholarship fund.

Under the deal, plaintiffs’ attorneys would be paid between $50 million and $100 million, with the exact amount to be determined by a judge. Cobell and the other named plaintiffs could receive up to $15 million to reimburse them for expenses paid.

Plaintiff attorney Dennis Gingold did not immediately return an after-hours call seeking comment. However, Cobell’s website says the $100 million figure for attorney fees is less than 3 percent of the total settlement and is a “very low percentage for attorneys in class-action lawsuits.”

Congress faces a May 28 deadline to approve the agreement.

Barrasso said he’d like to hear from tribal leaders and their constituents in time to address concerns in draft legislation the parties have proposed.

“I would like a better sense of where Indian Country stands on some of the calls for changes,” Barrasso said.