Key deadline approaching for beneficiaries to Cobell settlement

Indian beneficiaries face an important deadline in the $3.4 billion settlement to the Indian trust fund lawsuit, an attorney in the case said on Monday.

Beneficiaries have until April 20 to object or comment on the settlement, Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said at the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Beneficiaries also have until April 20 to request to speak at the fairness hearing, which is scheduled to take place on June 20.

Harper said he expects the settlement to be given final approval about a month after the fairness hearing. That will trigger a 60-day appeal period.

"We're looking at payment in October if there is no appeal," Harper told tribal leaders.

Most beneficiaries will receive at least $1,800 from the settlement, Harper said. But some will receive more, based on the type of activity that occurred on their land.

Some beneficiaries will only receive $800, the minimum payment in the settlement, but Harper doesn't anticipate many people to fall into that category.

April 20 is also the deadline for beneficiaries to opt out of the portion of the settlement that deals with trust mismanagement. People who opt out can file their own lawsuits to seek damages from the federal government but they cannot participate in the fairness hearing, Harper said.

Harper is part of a team of attorneys who have worked on the case since 1996. They are seeking $223 million for their efforts, a figure that has come under fire from politicians in both parties.

"The lawyers want more from the settlement than they should get," former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) said at NCAI yesterday. "I'm sorry -- that money ought go to Indians, not to lawyers."

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