SEATTLE, Sept. 15, 2014 /PRNewswire/ — The Garden City Group, Inc. (Garden City) and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, announced that the first checks were mailed today, Monday, September 15, to the Trust Administration Class in the Cobell Indian Trust Settlement.
On August 30, 2014, the Interior Department provided the data to Garden City, the firm Court-appointed to administer the Settlement, for the payments and on September 11, The United States District Court for the District of Columbia entered an Order approving plaintiffs’ unopposed motion to begin distribution of nearly $950 million. This was the final approval needed to commence payment of the Trust Administration portion of settlement funds to Class Members.
“Garden City is sending checks to Trust Administration Class Members where we have a current address beginning today,” said Jennifer Keough, Chief Operating Officer, Garden City. “Checks may take five to seven days to reach Class Members once they have been mailed.”
The Cobell Settlement is the largest class action settlement against the federal government. Filed in 1996 by the late Elouise Cobell and other Native American leaders, it sought an accounting of the individual Indian trust accounts and reform of the trust system, which had been mismanaged for over a century. Once the case settled, counsel for the Plaintiffs, Bill Dorris and David Smith of Kilpatrick Townsend, and Garden City were tasked with distributing funds to 500,000 individual Indian beneficiaries across the country. However, the records from the Department of Interior reflected decades of neglect.
As David Smith, Counsel for the Cobell Plaintiffs in the Washington, DC office of Kilpatrick Townsend explained, “There were insufficient or absolutely no addresses for over 315,000 class members, 22,000 individuals Interior listed as alive were deceased, over 1,200 Interior listed as deceased we found were still alive, and there were thousands of whom Interior had no record at all. But it was important that Elouise Cobell’s legacy be fulfilled and that class members receive the money to which they were entitled under the Settlement. By working closely with tribes, associations, and individual Indians across the country we were able, in just over a year and a half, to fix trust records that had not been adequately addressed by the federal government for generations.”
HELENA, Montana — Laura Juarez is supposed to receive close to $1,200 as her share of a $3.4 billion settlement among hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose land-trust royalties were mismanaged by the government for more than a century.
The Bakersfield, California, notary public was going to pool that money with her husband’s share, along with a portion of what was coming to her father’s estate, to send her 17-year-old daughter to a student-ambassador program in Australia.
But the money, which she expected in December, still hasn’t come and her daughter isn’t going on next month’s trip.
The payments have been held up by more than 2,400 appeals by people who were ruled ineligible to participate in the settlement. As the special master appointed to the case goes through those appeals, Juarez and other American Indians are growing increasingly frustrated over what they see as justice delayed.
“It seems as if the Native Americans are being screwed again,” said Juarez, a 39-year-old member of the Comanche nation. “I know several others who have given up on it. It’s created a sour taste in their mouths. We get our hopes up just to have it knocked down.”
The 493,724 beneficiaries identified as of the beginning of May already know how much they are supposed to receive from the settlement — the individual payments range from $850 to nearly $10 million — and many had earmarked those amounts to splurge on big purchases or simply pay their bills.
The delays have resulted in complaints to the claims administrator, an online petition and even a letter from Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh about a lack of transparency and misinformation regarding the payments.
“This delay is placing a financial burden on Montana families, and forcing many who are expecting payments to take out loans that they are now unable to repay,” the April 3 letter to the settlement’s claims administrator, Garden City Group, said.
Jennifer Keough, Garden City Group’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, did not return a call for comment.
The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, recognizing the frustration, plan to ask a federal judge this week to allow the distribution to take place before the appeals are finalized.
“The agreement says that no trust administration class payments can be made until all the members are identified,” said David Smith, an attorney for Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton LLP. “There are a lot of appeals, and many are extremely lengthy. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to participate in the settlement and it’s not a rush job.”
At issue is the second of two distributions in one of the largest U.S. government settlements in history, prompted by a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Blackfeet elder Elouise Cobell of Montana. Cobell sued the government after realizing that many Indians who owned land held in trust for them by the government lived in poverty with no accounting of the royalties they were due when the Interior Department leased their land for development, exploration or grazing.
The lawsuit claimed the Interior Department mismanaged and squandered billions of dollars that were supposed to go to the landowners since the 1880s, but incomplete and missing records prevented them from determining how much was lost.
It took about 14 years to reach a settlement with the government, then another year for Congress to approve the deal in December 2010. It wasn’t until December 2012 that all the appeals over the settlement were dismissed and the first monetary distributions were mailed.
Those 339,106 beneficiaries, called the historical accounting class, received a flat payment of $1,000 apiece. That was the easy part.
The second round of distributions go to what is called the trust administration class in varying amounts based on a formula that looks at 10 years of the highest earnings in the royalty accounts held by the government, which are called Individual Indian Money trust accounts.
Identifying the people in that second class — which also contains members of the first class — has proven to be a challenge due in part to the Interior Department’s incomplete record-keeping, Smith said. For example, the Interior Department had no records for thousands of people in Oklahoma who had made claims, leading to an extension of the appeals period while they tried to prove their claims by going to the state courts for documentation.
Plus, there were no known addresses for 65,000 people identified as beneficiaries, which Garden City Group has been able to whittle down to about 14,000, Smith said.
The search for those still on the list continues, though it won’t hold up the payments, he said.
That’s little consolation to the beneficiaries who are waiting. Not only are their payments delayed, but their checks are diluted when more class members are added.
In Juarez’s case, she was told last summer she would receive $1,260. As of February, that had been reduced to $1,197 with the addition of more beneficiaries.
“If they’re entitled to that money, that’s great — awesome — but the timing is taking way too long,” Juarez said. “A deadline is a deadline. They are holding up so many people.”
HELENA – The Flathead Reservation is among 21 Indian reservations that will be the focus of the next phase of a $1.9 billion program to buy fractionated land parcels owned by multiple individuals and turn them over to tribal governments, Interior Department officials said Thursday.
Besides the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, other Montana participants are the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation; Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation; Crow Tribe; and the Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana.
Government officials will work with tribal leaders to plan, map, conduct mineral evaluations, make appraisals and acquire land on the reservations from Washington state to Oklahoma in this phase, which is expected to last through 2015.
Other reservations could be added to the list, but the 21 named Thursday meet the criteria, particularly tribal readiness, said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn.
“We knew it wouldn’t be successful unless tribal leaders were interested in the program,” Washburn said.
The land buyback program is part of a $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, who died in 2011. The lawsuit claimed Interior Department officials mismanaged trust money held by the government for hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners.
The 1887 Dawes Act split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation, resulting in some parcels across the nation being owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians.
Often, that land sits without being developed or leased because approval is required from all the owners.
The land buyback program aims to consolidate as many parcels as possible by spending $1.9 billion by a 2022 deadline to purchase land from willing owners, then turn over that purchased land to the tribes to do as they see fit.
So far, the program has spent $61.2 million and restored 175,000 acres, said Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor. To buy even that much land, officials had to locate and contact owners in all 50 states and several countries to find out if they were willing to sell, Connor said.
The work primarily has been focused on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation until now.
Last month, tribal leaders from four reservations criticized the buyback program’s slow pace and complained they were being shut out of decisions over what land to buy. The leaders from tribes in Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington state spoke before a U.S. House panel.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who called for the congressional hearing, said he welcomed Thursday’s announcement by the Interior Department.
“However, I am concerned their efforts here may not provide tribes with the necessary tools to ensure the Land Buy-Back program is properly implemented,” Daines said in a statement.
He said the Interior Department should use its authority to give tribes more flexibility, and it should move swiftly to address consolidation problems on other reservations not included in the announcement.
Washburn said Thursday that his agency has entered into or is negotiating cooperative agreements with many tribes in the buyback program, though others say they want the federal government to run the program.
21 reservations next up in consolidation program
These are the American Indian reservations the Department of Interior plans to focus on in the next phase of a $1.9 billion buyback program of fractionated land parcels to turn over to tribal governments. The program is part of a $3.4 billion settlement over mismanaged money held in trust by the U.S. government for individual Indian landowners.
– Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana.
– Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Cheyenne River Reservation, Wyoming.
– Coeur D’Alene Tribe of the Coeur D’Alene Reservation, Idaho.
– Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana.
– Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Oregon.
– Crow Tribe, Montana.
– Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana.
– Gila River Indian Community of the Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona.
– Lummi Tribe of the Lummi Reservation, Washington.
– Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation, Washington.
– Navajo Nation, Arizona.
– Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, Montana.
– Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.
– Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas.
– Quapaw Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma.
– Quinault Tribe of the Quinault Reservation, Washington.
– Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota.
– Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, North Dakota and South Dakota.
– Squaxin Island Tribe of the Squaxin Island Reservation, Washington.
– Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and South Dakota.
– Swinomish Indians of the Swinomish Reservation, Washington.