WASHINGTON - The initial week of the ''money phase'' trial over the Individual Indian Money trust featured some favorable moments for the plaintiffs, who contend the government owes IIM beneficiaries $58 billion for bungled accounting.
Blackfeet lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell had family in the courtroom for the June 9 opening day; plaintiff attorney Keith Harper, also a principle adviser on Native-specific issues to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, only smiled but almost laughed when asked if he could handle any more happiness following Obama's win in the nominating process, and a solid enough opening round in the trial; and lead plaintiff attorney Dennis Gingold didn't get too stern about warning a photographer off any camera actuations that would commit the plaintiff attorneys to film - they've put their clients, the IIM beneficiaries, first for 12 years and they're not going to stop now, he explained.
One of the injured class of clients, Cobell herself, agreed to stand for a few snaps, however; and after 12 years of grueling trial, she got to hear out free advice about the potential for taking a moment to feel good should the opportunity present itself. ''But we've got to win first,'' she said, and her game face was still on as she ducked into a cab.
On June 16, opening day of the trial's second week, U.S. District Judge James Robertson declined to rule on a government motion to dismiss the plaintiff case for lack of evidence. He gave the government the advantage on the crucial point of proving whether it has benefitted substantially from unaccounted-for distribution of IIM funds.
Together - with statements from the bench in the previous week that the plaintiffs' ''only case'' was that the government can't be trusted, and his upbraiding of attorneys from both sides for introducing evidence that doesn't help him get to the dollar figure he seeks for his final decision - the remarks emphasized the difficulty of proving disgorgable gain to the government. But Robertson also noted the body of complex law that could (according to testimony in the case) mandate restitution to the plaintiffs from the government's undoubted breach of fiduciary duty.
With all that as a preface, plaintiff attorney William E. Dorris became the man of the hour for the plaintiffs. In exchanges that defy brief description (the court transcript is available on the Internet at www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm), he sought to find IIM collection and disbursement figures in 121 years of documents that would undermine a model of IIM account balances substituting 10,000 ''multiple imputations'' for missing data, offered for the government by statistician extraordinaire Fritz Scheuren.
After a lengthy duel over difficult, yet more or less comprehensible concepts such as ''missingness'' and ''model-adjusted'' data sets, Scheuren acknowledged that he and his staff are not claiming their model is a good one, only that it measures the risk of missing data in the account balances they'd been given to work with. He further testified that after Dorris' manifestation of missing data in the historical IIM balance figures that might render the data overall insufficient for multiple imputation ... ''Then I'm worried about it.''