FROM THE ARCHIVE

Interior fights $483 breach of trust ruling

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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2002

A federal judge last week rejected the Bush administration's attempt to delay a trust fund payment that has been denied to Indian beneficiaries for 30 years.

The Department of Interior sought to stall resolution to one of the longest-running disputes in Bureau of Indian Affairs history. Government attorneys said the outcome depended on two cases pending before the Supreme Court.

But U.S. District Judge Lawrence M. Piersol of South Dakota refused to stay a ruling that found the Interior breached its trust to about 1,900 beneficiaries whose assets have been tied up in a legal and political dispute for decades. He said final payment of the money is a "minor" one that can be resolved without waiting several more months to hear from the nation's highest court.

"While the court recognizes that the Supreme Court's decision in the two cases cited by the government may have some impact on this court's decision, the extent of any such impact is not certain," Piersol wrote in an August 15 order denying the latest attempt to stall.

At issue is a land settlement fund that has grown to more than $14 million since it was created by Congress in 1972. Despite two federal laws requiring the Interior to distribute the money, individual Indian account holders have yet to receive a dime.

The end was in sight when Piersol, on July 29, said the delay was a breach of the government's fiduciary duties. He then ordered the Indian plaintiffs and the government to present arguments on how to calculate interest on an extra $483 each beneficiary is owed.

Lead plaintiff Casimir Lebeau, an 84-year-old former Bureau of Indian Affairs, did that. His attorney proposed a way to calculate the damage award.

The Interior didn't. Instead, government attorneys wanted to wait for decisions on the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache trust law cases.

The thinking represented a view stated by Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles. He has been reluctant to describe the government's trust standards to both individual and tribal beneficiaries, and said the department wants the Supreme Court to provide direction.

The two cases are expected to be heard jointly this November. A decision would not come until next year, prolonging the 30-year wait for Lebeau and other individual beneficiaries in his same situation.

Recent Court Documents:
Court Order Denying Stay (8/15) | Plaintiff's Request for Interest (8/14) | DOJ Request for Stay (8/13)

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