Oenga case conclusion delayed, again

Jack McNeel, Today correspondent
8/31/10

The Oenga trial against British Petroleum and the BIA took place in Seattle at the end of July but no conclusion was reached. The family of Andrew Oenga had hoped for a settlement before it went to court.

“Before the trial we met with them for several days in settlement talks, but their offers were demeaning and disappointing,” said Wallace Oenga in a press release from the family. “After the trial our lawyer, Ray Givens, again told the U.S. and BP we’d be happy to settle the case if they would only make a reasonable and respectful offer. The BIA and BP know what it will take to settle. Now it is up to the BIA to make a proper proposal if they want to settle.”

The trial itself showed the contrast of a Native family taking on both the BIA and BP. The BIA had two lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department plus another from the Interior Solicitor’s Office. BP added one in-house lawyer and a private attorney plus an oil engineer with other lawyers working behind the lines. The Oenga family had one lawyer and a paralegal. “Seeing all those lawyers made me look at them like David and Goliath for awhile,” Wallace Oenga commented, “like the truth was set on the table.” He realized the family was in for a big war.

“The sad part was seeing the BIA and U.S. Department of Justice sitting at BP’s table, helping big oil instead of helping a Native family. BIA is supposed to be the guardian of the Natives but they sure didn’t act that way in the federal courtroom. It was wrong for them to be sitting there next to the oil companies.”

The Justice Department spent a lot of money at this trial. The press release stated that the three expert witnesses for the U.S. sat through the entire eight day trial, rather than just being there on the days they testified. They drew more than $90,000 during that time.

“This was such a waste of tax payer money,” Oenga said. “I think of all the good this money could do in our community. If the BIA would have spent this kind of time and money in the beginning trying to help us as our trustee, we would not have had to go to court. It makes you wonder if BIA feels they are trustee for Native people, or trustee to big oil companies like BP.”

Nancy Firestone, judge of the Court of Federal Claims, made no ruling at the end of the trial but asked for additional legal briefs and said she would schedule delayed closing arguments in Washington, D.C. this fall. She also encouraged the parties to consider settlement in the meantime.

Oenga traveled two days to reach Seattle; one day was spent flying from Atqasuk to Barrow to Fairbanks and the next day he flew to Seattle. Asked if he would travel to Washington, D.C. this fall he responded by simply saying, “Oh yeah.” He still hopes a settlement can be reached in the meantime.

“From the beginning of this case through trial, the BIA and Justice have puppy-tracked behind BP and the other oil companies, being led into hard line, uncompromising positions; the same old BIA – siding with the powerful interests against Native people,” Givens said.

“The court has already ruled the BIA breached its trust responsibility owed the Oengas. This trial was only to decide the amount of damages owed Oengas by BIA and the U.S. At the end of the trial the judge urged the parties to again consider settlement. The Oenga family would very much like to sit down with the BIA and Justice in a process designed to reach a fair and just settlement.

“There are enough moving pieces to this dispute, including parts in other forums, that settlement is clearly possible. There has been much talk recently about the ‘new face of the BIA.’ The question is whether this will change the way Native people are treated by the BIA when powerful business interests like BP are on the other side. The settle ball is now in the BIA and Justice’s court, but there is not much time before the judge rules.”

Two messages were left with the Office of Public Affairs at BIA asking why it appears that BIA is supporting BP rather than the Oenga family but neither call was returned.

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