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Are Second-Round Payments for Cobell Coming Soon?

Once again, the second round, or Trust Administration Class Members of Cobell Payments has stalled. The recent court document filed as "Plaintiff's Status Report Regarding Process on Efforts to Commence Trust Administration Class Payments" filed July 14, 2014, stated that the Department of Interior ("DOI") reported that it would be completed by August 30, 2014 once they completed updating of approximately 200 class members impacting ownership certification of 17 Indian trust tracts.

This is really confusing. The Garden City Group ("GCG") has reported that DOI has not completed the determination of addresses for those individuals coded "Whereabouts Unknown." GCG reports there are about 30,000 "Whereabouts Unknown." Who is right and who is wrong? The Office of the Special Trustee ("OST") touts their past ability to locate many individuals who were previously coded as "Whereabouts Unknown" but somehow still acknowledges that there are about 30,000 still unresolved. Each local BIA Agency has a OST Fiduciary Trust Officer ("FTO") whose primary duty is to serve IIM account owners and locate individuals and update their addresses.

The next problem, common in Indian Country, is that Indian folks move a lot without changing their address and thus become a "Whereabouts Unknown." Indians sometimes move and changing their IIM account slips from they remembrance. Usually, when they hear about a per-capita payment, or a family member notifies them that some entity want to lease land they share an interest in, they will update their IIM address. It's a constant changing list.

Simple solution? Merely issue the checks for all tracts where the ownership has been certified as correct and if any come back stamped by the Post Office as "Whereabouts Unknown" place the funds into the Individual Indian Monies account and hold until an updated address is obtained. It's not that difficult a task. OST loves to delete IIM accounts when an individual disposes of his or her trust land interest because it costs money to maintain an account and their reports look better.

My experience with FTO's is that it is a political position and most spend their days in the office hanging out with tribal officials instead of beating the bushes looking for "Whereabouts Unknown" folks. I have worked with a couple of hard working FTOs who were very proficient in performing their responsibilities, but, they are few and far in between. Too many federal employees soon forget they were hired to protect, preserve, and assist mineral and landowners in managing their lands.

How many deadlines for distributing Trust Administration class members have come and gone since the Court accepted the Cobell Settlement Agreement? Because funds are not deposited in IIM accounts, class member payments do not earn interest. There is confusion about who is receiving the interest accrual on the balance. The agreement doesn't address this issue. DOI has made public statements that the funds were distributed to GCG and placed into non-interest bearing accounts.

Recently the congressional law-makers indicated their strong desire that land buy back ("LBBP") funds be placed into an interest bearing account and then transferred back into the LBBP for additional tribal trust acquisitions. How can money sit somewhere in a financial institution and no one is earning interest off of the principal? This amazes me. Who negotiated an agreement that absolves the payee of $3.4 billion without earning interest? Somewhere there are entities who crafted a settlement agreement that is not beneficial to Indian Country. Go ahead and vote them back into office again. I'm no banker, but I'm not ignorant either about how banking systems work. You deposit funds, they invest or loan your funds to others and pay you interest for the use of your money. Sounds pretty simple to me.

Someone needs to step up to the plate and treat settlement class members significantly better than what is happening presently. After all, the payments are for past wrongs. And now every indication is that the injustice will not be corrected by another settlement. Cobell released the government from any past claims by tribes and individual Indians so it's as if those injustices never happened. But it didn't absolve the government of any new claims occurring after class members accepted the first Cobell payment. 

Is holding up about 470,000 checks for 30,000 individuals who can't be located worth withholding long overdue payments? I imagine once they announce it has been paid, their response will be “It’s in the mail.” Good luck that and on receiving your payment anytime soon.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian Country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at RoundhouseTalk.com.