Hearings held to settle Cobell

E.S. Dempsey
10/31/03

BILLINGS, Mont. - The House Resources Committee on Oct. 25 held the first of at least three field hearings about Congressional legislation to settle the Cobell Indian Trust lawsuit. Congressman Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) presided over the session at Montana State University in Billings. Leaders from eight Montana tribes and one Wyoming tribe submitted testimony, as well as one Individual Indian Money account holder.

Several witnesses referred to the bill Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell introduced a few days before, which would offer the Cobell litigants a settlement option outside of the courts. But a spokesperson for Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo said Pombo is looking to develop his own legislative solution to the eight-year-old court case.

Geri Small, president of Montana's Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, said fellow tribal member Campbell's legislation needs a lot of work. She noted that the $40 million dollars in Campbell's bill is only for developing a settlement process, not paying claims. She also said that Congress should be discussing settlement of the Cobell case with the representatives of the IIM account holders. Although several of the witnesses, including Small, have IIM accounts, only Majel Russell, a lawyer for the Crow tribe, testified as an individual landholder rather than as a tribal representative.

A number of tribal leaders emphasized that settlement money should be Congressionally authorized to come from the U.S. Treasury's Judgment Fund, not from the Interior Department's budget appropriations. The judgment fund is a permanent appropriation of the Treasury Department that was established by Congress in 1956, to allow settlement of claims against the United States. Congress this summer passed legislation to distribute the Gila River Community's water rights settlement via the judgment fund.

Vernon Hill, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, said that both paying damages for past and present IIM trust funds mismanagement, as well as reforming the BIA's trust accounting system, should be financed from this judgment fund.

Alvin Windy Boy Sr., chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe's Business Committee, said that any Congressional legislation to settle Cobell needs to provide money for the two key elements of the trust fund problem. "The court in Cobell has divided the case into accounting issues and trust reform issues. It makes sense to keep the same sort of division for any type of settlement legislation," he said.

Caleb Shields, Chief of Staff for the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck Reservation, testified that a legislative solution to Cobell should clearly state that the government is liable for the mismanagement of trust funds. "Legislative proposals, including S. 1770 which was recently introduced by Sen. Campbell, would leave government liability as an open question," he said.

In an interview after the hearing, Shields said that other tribes who testify at future hearings should come prepared with the number of IIM account holders they have. "What they want to do in each region is get a sense of how many account holders there are. Fort Peck has close to 12,000 members and we have 8,671 IIM accounts."

Shields said that one of the questions the witnesses were asked was how much money IIM account holders were owed. "None of us knows because we don't have the expertise of establishing that. All we know is what we get in the mail, those printout sheets once in a while. And the check doesn't tell us where it's coming from."

When ICT asked Shields if he was being realistic to expect Congress to set up a treasury judgment fund to settle the Cobell lawsuit, given the state of the economy and the situation in Iraq, he said that the availability of the money is an open question either way - through the courts or through Congress. "Courts can rule all they want, but if there's no money there to do what's necessary, it's not going to be done."

The next House Resources Committee field hearing to develop a legislative solution to the Indian Trust Fund lawsuit is Nov. 3, at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Reservation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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