Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement | Law | National | Trust

Cobell plaintiffs offer update on distribution of settlement funds

The late Elouise Cobell meets President Barack Obama at the White House on December 8, 2010. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

The overwhelming majority of funds from the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit have gone to Indian Country as the attorneys for the plaintiffs keep looking for more eligible beneficiaries.

As of December 2015, nearly $1.2 billion has been paid to individual Indians, according to a filing in federal court. The figure accounts for more than 94 percent of the available settlement funds, an extremely high rate that comes just three years after the first checks went out in December 2012 to resolve more than a century of mismanagement by the federal government.

"Ms. Cobell worked tirelessly to see this injustice rectified," the filing states, referring to the late Elouise Cobell, who initiated the lawsuit in June 1996 on behalf of individual Indians everywhere. "The settlement that is her legacy needs to be fulfilled and every reasonable effort must be made so that individuals wrongfully excluded from participation in the benefits of the trust likewise not be excluded from participation in the settlement when eligible."

But finding everyone who is eligible for a payment has been rather difficult, according to the filing. Tens of thousands of beneficiaries who are owed a share of the settlement still haven't been identified or located due to inaccurate records, inadequate data and just plain bad information.

To rectify the problem, the Cobell plaintiffs have been working closely with Indian leaders, tribal governments, the Interior Department and the Garden City Group, the firm that was put in charge of administering the settlement. The goal is to find as many beneficiaries -- or their heirs, in the case of those who have passed on -- as possible by April 30.

As one example of the massive and ongoing outreach, attorneys secured permission from the Osage Nation of Oklahoma to examine the tribe's enrollment records last summer. The effort resulted in additional $4.46 million in settlement funds for Osage citizens and their heirs, according to the filing.

A trip to Minnesota proved fruitful as well. A review of enrollment records for the , Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth bands found another 3,500 eligible beneficiaries who and are entitled to $4.8 million from the settlement, the attorneys wrote.

"It would be an understatement to say that the distribution and outreach efforts to date by class counsel and GCG have been incredibly extensive," the filing states as it outlines dozens of meetings and hundreds of contacts throughout Indian Country. "Indeed, we cannot locate one other settlement where such intensive efforts have occurred or where the location of previously unidentified class members has been so successful."

The settlement was structured into two payments. The first was a $1,000 check for every beneficiary to resolve the failure of the government to perform a historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

According to the attorneys, more than 96 percent of the members of the Historical Accounting Class have been paid or are in the process of being paid.

The second payment went out in September 2014 and addressed the government's general fiduciary failures. It was based on a formula that was tied to the level of activity in a person's IIM account so the checks went from a baseline of $869 to a high of $10 million.

According to the Cobell plaintiffs, 88 percent of the members Trust Administration Class have been paid or are in the process of being paid, a number that is expected to rise as outreach and other efforts continue.

Still, nearly 38,000 unidentified living class members and nearly 23,000 estates still need to be examined to determine whether these beneficiaries are owed money, the attorneys wrote. The plaintiffs and Garden City Group plan to work with the government over the next four months as part of their "reasonable efforts" to distribute as much of the settlement as possible.

But in the event of leftover money, the settlement calls for them to be deposited into the Cobell scholarship fund, which now boasts a balance of $35 million thanks to sales from the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, another component of the settlement.

The program is sending even more money to Indian Country as individual Indians are paid for selling their fractional interests. As of December 31, 2015, more than $732 million has been accepted by willing participants.

The settlement calls for the $1.9 billion program to run for 10 years -- the first offers went out in late 2013 so it's due to run for a few more years. The equivalent of nearly 1. 5 million acres have been restored to tribal ownership as a result of the effort.

At this time, there are over 30,000 Class Members designated as Whereabouts Unknown and thousands more whose addresses on record with the Claims Administrator are not current. During the first distribution, eligible payments were deposited into a Class Member's IIM Account. If you believe you or a family member may have a record that requires updating, please help identify such accounts so that future payments may be made directly to the Class Member.

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