FROM THE ARCHIVE

After 30 years an extra $483 for breach of trus

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FRIDAY, AUGUST 16, 2002

A federal judge late last month ruled that the Department of Interior breached its fiduciary responsibilities to Indian beneficiaries for delaying payment of a trust fund.

But after 30 years of waiting, the plaintiffs in the suit -- mostly former Bureau of Indian Affairs employees -- are only being awarded an extra $483 plus interest, if any. U.S. District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol of South Dakota said the money was owed for two specific breaches of trust.

"The court holds that the defendant breached its trust duties by unreasonably delaying the . . distribution," he wrote on July 29, "and by unreasonably delaying the preparation of the roll and distributing the [trust] fund."

Piersol's ruling is the latest in one of the longest-running trust fund disputes in Bureau of Indian Affairs history. Individual Indians, tribes, members of Congress and the courts have been fighting over the Mississippi Sioux Tribes Judgment Fund for decades.

The $5.9 million trust was created by a 1972 law to compensate for lost land. The majority of the money was to be distributed to the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe of North Dakota; the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota; and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana.

The remainder was to go to individual Indian beneficiaries who were not members of these tribes but nonetheless entitled to the money. BIA employees involved in the case began to apply for a share.

They weren't successful, despite repeated inquiries and requests. Lead plaintiff Casimir Lebeau, now 84, submitted an application in 1973. He never got an answer.

According to BIA correspondence to the plaintiffs, to former senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota and to now-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the delay was due to funding and resource limitations.

But there also was pressure from the tribes to increase their own share of the fund, according to court documents and correspondence. Eventually, the tribes -- to the opposition of the Clinton administration -- convinced Congress in 1998 to pass a law to take away 28 percent of the money owed to the individual Indians, who didn't carry the same political clout.

The delay associated with this reduction caused harm to the plaintiffs, Piersol ruled.

"While the court recognizes that governmental agencies are not free from political pressure and are subject to budgetary restrictions, the BIA's lack of diligence in preparing the roll and distributing the Judgment Fund because of a lack of political pressure from any tribe violated the defendant's duties to the lineal descendants as trustee of the fund," he wrote.

The individual Indian share of the fund has grown to more than $14 million. The breach of trust, however, was based on the 1982 value of $4.1 million. Approximately 1,900 beneficiaries are deemed eligible to receive money.

Piersol directed the plaintiffs and the Interior to submit briefs on the interest part of the claim by Monday.

Get the Decision:
Lebeau v. U.S. (7/29)
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