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Judge Grants Cobell Settlement Final Approval

WASHINGTON – After years of intense legal arguments, it took a federal judge less than a day to affirm that a settlement to a case involving the federal government’s mismanagement of Indian trust assets was fair. His decision will end up offering thousands of Indians a small slice of a multi-billion U.S. government offering.

On June 20, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan heard several arguments for why a proposed $3.4 billion settlement between the Interior Department and Indians involved in the case was just. By the end of the day, he had announced his agreement.

“The government mismanaged these resources on a staggering scale,” Hogan said in announcing his decision. He added that the settlement could not make up for the losses Indians have faced for years, but he said the agreement “at least…provides some certainty” to Natives who choose to receive a portion of the funds.

“The process has gone on long enough,” Hogan said. The case was first filed by Blackfeet citizen Elouise Cobell in 1996. Since that time, as the government delayed the case, hundreds of possible beneficiaries have died, Hogan said.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that the decision “marks another important step forward in the relationship between the federal government and Indian country.”

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“Resolving this dispute was a priority for my administration, and we will engage in government-to-government consultations with tribal nations regarding the land consolidation component of the settlement to ensure that this moves ahead at an appropriate pace and in an appropriate manner,” Obama said. “And going forward, my administration will continue to strengthen our relationship with Indian country.”

The settlement was first announced in December 2009 between the Interior Department and the lead Indian plaintiffs in the case. It took another year for Congress to approve it.

One of the main sticking points of the deal focused on how much money the Indian plaintiffs’ lawyers would receive. They argued for more than $223 million, while the Obama administration said they should get no more than $50 million. In the end, Hogan awarded them $99 million, while most Indian beneficiaries will receive less than $2,000.

The approved settlement now calls for $1.5 billion to be divided among the approximately 300,000 Indian account holders affected by the outcome. At the same time, $1.9 billion will go to the Interior Department to start a new program of buying back and consolidating tribal land involved with the trust controversies. Sixty million is set to become part of a scholarship fund for Native students.

“Judge Hogan’s decision is another milestone in empowerment and reconciliation for the American Indians,” Secretary Salazar said, noting in particular the contributions of Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes and Interior’s Solicitor Hilary Tompkins in reaching the settlement. “The Cobell settlement not only resolves the contentious 15-year litigation, but also honorably and responsibly turns the page on an unfortunate chapter in the Department’s history, demonstrating President Obama's commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for American Indian nations.”

“The judge’s finding that the settlement is fair and reasonable is a major milestone in the Administration’s effort to reach a resolution of litigation that has cast a cloud over the government’s relationship with American Indians,” said Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, who has twice testified before Congress on the settlement.