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Cobell settlement waits for Congress

WASHINGTON – Deadlines involving the Cobell v. Salazar settlement are fast approaching, with congressional action required by month’s end, or the Indian plaintiffs and the federal government will have to agree to an extension.

Congress and the court overseeing the case must accept the agreement, which was announced Dec. 8, for it to become final.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony Dec. 17 to determine whether it should support a federal government move toward settling the case.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., SCIA chairman, believes Congress might need an extension, but he expressed confidence at the hearing that the deal, which he supports, will ultimately be approved.

He then sent a letter to Senate and House leadership Dec. 18 urging action on the legislation “at the earliest possible time in January.”

Dorgan’s request appears to be a best case scenario, as the House adjourned for the session as of Dec. 16 until early January, and no hearings in the chamber had been scheduled on the matter as of press time. Neither chamber had voted on the issue.

Parameters of the settlement involve $1.4 billion designated for individual Indian trust fund beneficiaries and $2 billion for a land consolidation program to be overseen by Interior to buy back fractionated trust lands.

Testifying at the hearing were two top government officials and lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell.

“I hope you will help us to secure swift enactment of the necessary legislation. As the members of this committee are aware, this settlement is a starting point, not an ending point,” testified Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“It is time now to move beyond the litigation and to commit to working cooperatively with American Indian and Alaska Native communities to address education, law enforcement, and economic development challenges.”

President Barack Obama has already asked Congress to quickly approve the deal.

Tom Perrelli, assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, noted that the settlement contains many key elements that members of the committee have sought to address in prior efforts to resolve this matter, including addressing calls from plaintiffs’ claims for a historical accounting.

Pending quick congressional action, Cobell predicted money could be received by Indian beneficiaries by fall 2010.

As previously explained by federal officials regarding the settlement, a $1,000 check will be delivered to class action members, of which there are upwards of 300,000 in the case. Some will receive much more, based on the type of activity that occurred on their land.

Beyond the numbers, Cobell once again explained the rationale for settling – something she has done many times over the course of the month. In response to a question from Dorgan, she estimated that about 1 in 10 people have had a negative response to the settlement.

“We are compelled to settle now by the sobering reality that our class grows smaller each year, each month and every day,” testified the Blackfeet tribal member.

“We also face the uncomfortable but unavoidable fact that a large number of individual Indian trust beneficiaries are among the most vulnerable people in this country, existing in sheer poverty.”

Cobell said “time is of the essence” for Congress to support the deal.

Dorgan agreed, saying that a resolution will allow the federal government to focus on education, health, law enforcement and other needs in Indian country.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., SCIA’s vice chairman, asked about lawyer fees, an area wondered about by many Indians, since the fees could eat up a large amount of the settlement.

Perrelli said Cobell’s team could receive between $50 million and $100 million for their work since 1996. The final amount will be determined in court.

Salazar said the payment of lawyer fees was “a central issue of concern for us as we drove down to the final goal line on reaching this settlement.”

Barrasso also had questions about the land consolidation program – another area of concern for many Indians.

David Hayes, the deputy secretary at Interior, said the program will focus on parcels with 20 or more owners – which he said will result in addressing the most difficult parts of the Indian trust.

Still, he said it would probably take between $6 billion and $8 billion to truly resolve the fractionation of Indian lands.

Tribal leaders believe Interior’s moves in the controversial area promise to hold much attention in 2010 and beyond.