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Torres-Martinez finally will get settlement money

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THERMAL, Calif. ? In a week not rife with good news, the Torres-Martinez tribe had reason to celebrate.

Before fleeing the capitol in the wake of the anthrax scares, Congress passed an appropriations bill on Oct.17 that will help settle a 90-year old dispute between Torres-Martinez and the federal government.

The 2002 Interior Department budget will give Torres-Martinez $6 million for land lost beginning in 1909 when irrigation canals were breached and flooded the Imperial basin to form the Salton Sea. The tribe is owed an additional $8 million for its losses, half of which is expected to be paid by local governmental agencies such as the Coachella Valley Water and the Imperial Irrigation Districts.

The remaining $4 million is expected to be approved in a few weeks when Congress decides on appropriations for the Justice Department. Each year Congress makes appropriations for each of its 13 main departments and since the Justice Department was involved in the litigation it was decided to make it liable for the remaining funds.

Tribal Chairwoman Mary Belardo said the tribe is grateful for the payments. The money will be put into a trust account and per capita payments are going to be locked at 25 percent of all funds received in the settlement, she said.

Belardo added this is just the beginning of a long road for the tribe.

"When you've lived in poverty for as long as we have, there's a lot that needs to be done. Our infrastructure needs updating. We're putting the remainder, after the per capitas, into a trust account and we're going to have to justify every withdrawal from this fund."

Belardo also said the tribe and the federal government will formally drop litigation against each other next week at the federal court in San Diego.

The settlement is mainly a follow through to a law signed by President Clinton last December that ratified a settlement agreement to end 15 years of litigation. Congresswoman Mary Bono, R-Calif., was the author and sponsor of the reparation law.

"This was a fair settlement agreement that will allow this tribe to become whole again," Bono said.

Rusty Payne, a spokesman for Bono, said part of the law authorized the Torres-Martinez tribe to use part of the funds to buy new land to make up for the 11,000 acres lost to the Salton Sea. Local municipalities, however, will have veto power over any Torres-Martinez purchase of trust land.

"This law basically rights a very old wrong that should have been settled a long time ago. This is good not just for the Torres-Martinez tribe, but for Southern California as well," Payne said.

Though the tribe has said it has no immediate plans for a gaming facility on newly acquired lands, it recently made headlines over Gov. Gray Davis' refusal to negotiate a gaming compact with the tribe.

The issue of gaming was a factor in a dispute with the nearby Cabazon tribe who originally opposed the bill because it feared a gaming operation on newly acquired Torres-Martinez land would be too close to a Cabazon residential area.

Cabazon opposition to an original reparations bill in the mid-1990s, introduced by Bono's late husband, Congressman Sonny Bono, R-Calif., was seen by Torres-Martinez as a major factor in its defeat. The issue was finally laid to rest when a host of House members led by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., brokered a settlement between the tribes.