Martin: Congress should study Cobell settlement before approving it

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If you are anything like me, you breathed a sigh of relief when the news broke last month that the Cobell case had been settled.

I suspect virtually everyone in Indian country welcomed the prospect of a Cobell settlement because for more than 15 years this lawsuit has diverted so much federal appropriations and attention away from other pressing needs in Indian country.

Indeed, the initial press statements by U.S. government officials and Elouise Cobell made it sound like the lion and lamb had laid down together in green pastures.

But then I read the actual settlement agreement that the U.S. government and Cobell are asking the Congress to quickly approve, and I did not recognize it. I vigorously object to several of its key terms. I have urged our Alaska senators to

If you are anything like me, you breathed a sigh of relief when the news broke last month that the Cobell case had been settled.

scrutinize the proposed settlement and insist that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and Congress not simply rubber stamp this deal. Unless it is changed, this settlement is not in the interest of most American Indians and trust beneficiaries. In fact, it is very unfair to most of us.

I’ve been actively involved, from the tribal side, in trust management and accounting issues for more than a decade. I respect the good intentions of everyone involved. But this settlement smells like rotten fish. Even a cursory reading of it raises serious questions that should be resolved before it is approved by Congress.

The settlement agreement should be given careful public scrutiny and hearings because it involves such large amounts of money, and thousands of claimants, and the extinguishment of many claims, and the payment of millions of dollars in attorney’s fees that could otherwise be spent on pressing needs in Indian country.

I am particularly troubled by questions regarding the ‘new’ class of plaintiffs this settlement would create whose claims would then be settled and extinguished.

So far, the only persons who have been asked to testify on the settlement are Cobell and the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the federal defendants. There is no public hearing record of the views of any of the hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs who are slated to realize only $1,000 each from this settlement.

That amount for each plaintiff pales when compared with the $50 million to $100 million slated to be paid to plaintiffs’ attorneys. When lawyers are set to be paid 50,000 to 100,000 times what any plaintiff is to receive, the Congress should first ask plaintiffs other than Cobell what they think of the settlement. Especially when the settlement appears to call for Cobell, along with three other named plaintiffs, to receive more than $15 million even as all other plaintiffs’ claims are extinguished for $1,000 each. This is particularly problematic since there are reports, which I have been unable to verify, that a detailed accounting of her trust accounts, including predecessor accounts, indicates she would recover less than $50 in any court judgment on her individual claims.

I am particularly troubled by questions regarding the “new” class of plaintiffs this settlement would create whose claims would then be settled and extinguished, especially when these individuals, including Alaska Natives, have been repeatedly assured for years that only accounting claims, and not asset-based or mismanagement claims, are at issue in the Cobell litigation. Many of us now have reason to fear what is being done for or to our claims in this settlement.

We need much more time to analyze the impact of this far-reaching proposed settlement.

For these reasons I am urging Congress to hold more hearings and subject the proposed settlement to extensive public scrutiny in the bright light of day. We need much more time to analyze the impact of this far-reaching proposed settlement. It needs to be aired out. At a minimum, it should be substantially revised by Congress.

Any hasty approval of this proposed settlement, without extensive review and investigation and revision on the part of Congress, would be unfair to tens of thousands of Indians whose claims will be extinguished for a paltry $1,000 each while a handful of people walk away with millions of dollars the taxpayers think are helping Indians.


William E. Martin is president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.