Plaintiffs Compromise to Achieve Justice and Help Impoverished Indians, Ending 13-Year Battle with U.S. Departments of Interior and Treasury

For more information, contact Jamie Moss, newsPRos, 201-493-1027

(December 8, 2009, Washington, D.C.) - The American Indian Plaintiffs, in a long-running class action lawsuit against the federal government for mismanagement of the individual Indian trust, today announced a Settlement with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Under the terms of the Settlement in Cobell v. Salazar, the federal government will create a $1.5 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates a $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and it includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward. This Settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and Settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation.

The agreement was announced today at a press conference at the Department of Interior by Elouise P. Cobell of Browning, MT, lead Plaintiff in the class action, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., and U.S. Secretary of Interior Kenneth L. Salazar.

"We have achieved a measure of justice and financial compensation for individual Indians whose trust accounts were mismanaged by our government," said Ms. Cobell, Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation. "Indians did not receive the full financial Settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best Settlement we could. This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life including the possibility of one day attending college can now be realized."

The agreement creates two groups of Indians eligible to receive Settlement money - the Historical Accounting Class and the Trust Administration Class. The Historical Accounting class comprises Indians alive on September 30, 2009 who had at least one transaction in an open Individual Indian Money (IIM) Account between October 25, 1994 and September 30, 2009. The Trust Administration Class comprises individual Indian beneficiaries alive on September 30, 2009 who have or had IIM Accounts dating from approximately 1985, as well as individual Indians who as of September 30, 2009 had a recorded or demonstrable interest in land held in trust or restricted status. Other eligibility conditions and exemptions for each class are detailed in the agreement.

Specific information about the trust fund Settlement and information and directions on how to register to determine eligibility in each class are available online at CobellSettlement.com and from the Settlement’s toll-free telephone line, 800-961-6109.

The first legal action in Cobell v. Salazar was filed in June 1996 by Ms. Cobell and four other Indian claimants on behalf of all present and past individual Indian trust beneficiaries, including over 300,000 then-current Individual Indian Money account holders. The Secretaries of the Interior, Treasury and the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs are the named defendants.

The case was tried in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia many times between 1998 and 2008, involving hundreds of trial/hearing days, over 3600 filings and millions of pages of discovery, 80 published opinions and 11 appellate decisions. "Over the nearly 14 years that I’ve been visiting reservations to discuss with individual Indians the suit and its slow progress through the federal court system, I’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of original Indian account holders," said Ms. Cobell. "Time takes a toll, especially on elders living in abject poverty. Many of them died as we continued our struggle to settle this suit. Many more would not survive long to see a financial gain, if we had not settled now. This, more than any other factor, motivated me to work toward an agreement now. If I were the only one affected by the egregious behaviors of the federal government in managing my trust account, I’d fight another 100 years, but I did what was best for the people who so badly need this money."

The legal team for the Plaintiffs is headed by Dennis M. Gingold, an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., with support from Keith M. Harper, Bill Dorris, David Smith, and Elliott Levitas, attorneys at Kilpatrick Stockton LLP.

"This resolution of the Individual Indian trust accounting matter is what was achievable in light of the current climate and the realities of the Indians’ current financial resources and needs," said Mr. Harper. "More importantly, the Settlement represents a first step toward building a positive relationship between individual Indians and the U.S. government. We expect the federal government will follow through on each of the commitments it has made, which will reverse the historical pattern that has characterized past U.S.-Indian agreements. Moving forward, such a reversal in federal policies and procedures will have as great a beneficial impact on Indians’ futures as the trust distributions they receive in Settlement of their claims."

In prepared remarks delivered at the announcement at the Department of the Interior, Ms. Cobell recognized Mr. Gingold as the driving force behind the Settlement. She thanked him and other members of the legal team; including Thaddeus Holt who, with Dennis, filed the case in 1996, and the attorneys from Kilpatrick Stockton.

Equally important is the work of the Honorable James Robertson, the United States District Court Judge who presided over this case for the past three years. Judge Robertson recognized the need to resolve this case in a fair and expeditious manner and worked hard to bring the parties together to reach the settlement we have today. Much is owed to the hard work of Judge Robertson.

Another individual critically important to this result was U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, in whose courtroom Indians began to find justice. Judge Lamberth was not afraid to speak truth to power, and Indian Account Trust Holders are the beneficiaries of his knowledge of the law, sense of fair play, and judicial courage.

Ms. Cobell also recognized the philanthropic organizations that funded the Individual Indian Monies Trust Correction and Recovery Project.