FROM THE ARCHIVE
Payment still delayed to Indian beneficiaries
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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2003

A long-running trust fund dispute has been put on hold pending the outcome of two critical Supreme Court cases affecting the nature and scope of the federal government's fiduciary responsibilities.

Only $1.7 million is at issue but the Department of Interior hasn't paid a group of individual Indian beneficiaries for more than 20 years. A federal judge last October held the government in breach of trust for "unreasonably delaying" payment to the account holders.

Making good on an earlier threat, government attorneys appealed the decision. So did the plaintiffs, led by Casimir Lebeau, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs employee who has been trying to get his share of a judgment fund award since the 1970s.

The two sides have since agreed to hold off until the Supreme Court hands down a ruling in the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache cases.

The cases, which were heard in tandem last December, affect whether the United States can be sued for breach of trust. The Bush administration argues that federal law is not specific enough to warrant money damages.

For much of the past year, Interior officials have refused, in varying degrees, to define their legal responsibilities and whether a specific standard applies when carrying out those duties. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, offered his reading of the dispute at hearing last week.

"The government suggests that it has no fiduciary standard and that the U.S. has no legal obligations to the beneficiaries beyond that set forth explicitly in the law," he said.

Bush officials are looking to the Supreme Court for guidance on their obligations. They face nearly 20 tribal trust cases that could turn on a ruling, in addition to the Cobell and Lebeau class actions, which represent the rights of individual Indians.

The Lebeau case is an example of the often divergent interests of tribal governments and tribal members. Although Congress in 1972 set aside a portion of a $5.9 million trust fund for individual Indians, tribes used political pressure and other lobbying tactics to enlarge their share.

The individuals were rebuffed the BIA, which finally prepared a roll of eligible beneficiaries in the early 1990s. The fund has since grown to at least $14 million. Lebeau is now 84.

Relying on a common law standard, U.S. District Judge Lawrence M. Piersol awarded $483 to each of the plaintiffs in addition to the $1,900 they are owed from the fund. The total figure is $1.7 million.

A ruling in the Navajo and White Mountain cases is expected by June.

Related Stories:
Senate panel eager to confirm Swimmer as trustee (2/13)
Trust fund plaintiffs awarded $1.7 million (10/30)
Study finds few Indian trust wins (10/21)
Bush threatens appeal on $483 breach of trust (10/02)
Bush officials break with tribes on trust (9/27)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Peabody battles tribe on trust (9/4)
Interior fights $483 breach of trust ruling (8/21)
Trust fund plaintiffs get ruling (8/16)
U.S. argues limits as trustee (8/9)
Legal tactics land Peabody in hot seat (7/22)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)

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