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Crow Nation settles federal land case

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CROW AGENCY, Mont. – Last December, Congress authorized an extension to the time allowed for claims against the federal government for the settlement of mismanaged tribal leases, royalties and other fees. That extension will end on Dec. 31 for good.

As of press time, only 20 tribes have filed claims against the federal government for settlement. Nearly every federally recognized tribe is eligible for some payment, attorneys assert.

The most recent settlement came to the Crow Nation in Montana. The Crow settled on $10 million for grazing-lease payments. The settlement was for a period of 20 years between 1972 through 1992. Other tribes may have claims dating back more than 100 years.

The Crow Nation sued the federal government in 2002 over mismanagement of trust funds. An agreement was reached in 2005, and the $10 million settlement was received one year later.

A spokesman for the tribe said the money would be used for social and educational needs, to pay off some debt and to improve reservations resources.

The moneys awarded represent the timeframe in which the Arthur Anderson LLP accounting firm was able to conduct a 1996 audit. The company claimed that there were no other records that would date back up to 100 years.

As a result of that 1996 audit, it was determined that the Department of the Interior mismanaged trust funds held for tribes. In the past few years six tribes have reached settlement, indicating that the federal government admits it mismanaged the lease funds. To this date only 20 tribes have filed claims for settlement.

“The moneys that were mismanaged are, if you look at the Crow settlement, available to all reservations. But they need to file claims to protect their rights,” said Gary Frischer, strategic legal consultant for a consortium of law firms litigating these trust claims.

The claims were established with the Osage Nation v. United States case, in which the Osage Nation argued that the federal government never provided an accounting of all funds held for royalties, fees and leases for oil and other minerals.

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In 2003, the federal government attempted to appeal the claim filed by the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, with the claim that it no longer had a fiduciary responsibility. That lawsuit filed in 1979 argued that the Minerals Management Service hired by the Wind River tribes did not collect the full amount of royalties. The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes share the Wind River reservation.

The government’s appeal was rejected, and U.S. Court of Claims Judge Emily Hewitt wrote in her opinion that the trust and fiduciary responsibility of the federal government was intact.

A year later, the two tribes on Wind River were awarded $10.5 million to be split evenly between them. The claim filed by the Wind River tribes goes back 40 years.

What the Crow and the Wind River settlements indicate is that the claims filed by tribes are valid, Frischer said.

In congressional testimony in March of 2005, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress that he would need 18 more employees and an additional $7.4 million to handle the tribal trust claims. He told Congress that the total claim figure could reach $200 million.

It has not been verified whether the attorney general’s office received more funding.

What it indicates to Frischer is that these claims are serious and most tribes will receive a settlement.

When the new statute of limitations expires on Dec. 31, Frischer said, there is better than a good possibility that the date will not be extended again.

A large consortium of law firms is willing to take a tribe’s claim to the federal government without any upfront costs. The lawyers are most willing to work with tribal attorneys on this matter, Frischer said.

Frischer is the contact person for the legal consortium; he can be reached at (818) 887-2114.