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The chronology of the Cobell decade

June 1996

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell files a suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the Department of the Interior (Cobell v. Babbitt) seeking reform of the Individual Indian Money trust system and accounting for 500,000 accounts over 119 years

February 1999

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover are found in contempt by Judge Royce Lamberth for failure to produce and protect records

June/July 1999

''Trial One'' focuses on how to reform the trust accounting system

October 1999

A mediator is appointed to settle the case

December 1999

It's determined that mediation will not lead to a settlement. Lamberth issues opinion stating that Interior has breached its trust responsibilities and orders quarterly reports on its reform efforts

September 2000

Appeals court hears arguments on Trial One judgment

November 2000

Treasury discloses that it has destroyed trust documents

January 2001

Gale Norton appointed secretary of the Interior, making the lawsuit Cobell v. Norton

February 2001

U.S. Court of Appeals finds in favor of plaintiffs

April 2001

Lamberth appoints a court monitor to oversee trust reform and report on Interior's progress

September 2001

Report finds that IIM trust fund data is in disarray and decades behind schedule due to mismanagement by Interior and BIA senior officials

December 2001

Lamberth orders Interior to disconnect from the Internet until security safeguards are installed

September 2002

Norton and Assistant Secretary Neil McCaleb found in contempt of court for withholding evidence

January 2003

National Congress of American Indians joins plaintiffs

March 2003

Ross Swimmer appointed as special trustee over trust funds

April 2003

Department of Interior appeals court ruling that said it is unfit to manage IIM trust accounts

May 2003

''Trial Two'' commences in hopes of discovering amounts owed IIM trustees

July 2003

The 44-day Phase Two trial closes

Contempt charges against Norton and McCaleb thrown out, saying that they could not be held accountable for events that took place before they held office

November 2003

U.S. Court of Appeals orders a stay of a lower court's order for a full historical accounting of the IIM trust

April 2004

Plaintiffs agree on Judge Charles Renfrew and John Bickerman as mediators

September 2004

Lamberth rules that Interior must provide a ''full and accurate accounting'' to IIM beneficiaries before trust lands can be sold by government

October 2004

Mediation efforts are declared hopeless

December 2004

U.S. Court of Appeals overrules Lamberth's deadline of September 2007 for historical accounting, says Interior can use statistical sampling in settling accounts, and permits Interior to devise its own reform plans

March 2005

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, pledges to address trust reform in a concerted way and give it ''only one good shot''

April/May 2005

Jim Gray and National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall co-chair meetings of a national tribal task force working group formed to provide recommendations to the SCIA and the House Resources Committee

June 2005

The national tribal task force presents a list of 50 principles, including a settlement number of $27.5 billion, to Congress

July 2005

Lamberth orders Interior to admit to trustees that its accounting may be inaccurate. He calls Interior a ''dinosaur.'' McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan sponsor Senate Bill 1439 (Indian Trust Reform Act of 2005) to distribute IIM funds at a ''fair and equitable rate'' and provide a method to consolidate fractionated land

August 2005

Justice Department requests a hearing to remove Lamberth from the case

January 2006

Interior is ordered to pay $7 million in attorney's fees. Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason responds by sending a letter to tribes stating that the payment would adversely affect funding of tribal programs

March 2006

Norton resigns and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is nominated. Case becomes Cobell v. Kempthorne. McCain's trust reform attempt reaches an impasse as Indian leaders disagree on the elements of reform legislation

July 2006

Lamberth is ousted from case for intemperate commentary and an appellate court restores Interior's connection to the Internet. McCain proposes an $8 billion settlement and two draft bills, S. 1439 and H.R. 4322, propose to compensate willing trustees

October 2006

Plaintiffs reject SCIA proposals

December 2006

District of Columbia Court Judge James Robertson is assigned to take over the case and congressional session ends with no action taken toward a legislative settlement

Sources: Country Today archives