Government disputes $58 billion claim in Indian trust suit

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Washington, D.C. (AP) 6-08

A group of American Indians is not entitled to a $58 billion claim against the United States – or anything close to that amount – over the mismanagement of century-old trust lands, government lawyers argued June 9.

The Indians’ 1996 suit claims they were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. They say the government has profited from money that should gone promptly into individual Indian accounts. The class-action suit covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs.

Opening arguments began June 10 in a trial that U.S. District Judge James Robertson has called to determine how much the government should pay the Indians. He ruled earlier this year that efforts by the Interior Department to account for the trust money were inadequate.

The Interior Department has argued in filings with the court that the judge lacks jurisdiction to award any money at all. But they are also attacking the amount the trust account holders say they are owed.

“There is no legal or factual basis to pay the plaintiffs billions of dollars or even close to a billion dollars,” said Robert Kirschman, an attorney representing the government. He said the amount would be “in the millions not the billions.”

Lawyers for the Indian plaintiffs defended their estimates and plan to try and prove their accuracy in the upcoming trial.

“We expect that this court will be satisfied that what we have done is reasonable and fair, and represents the money that is due our clients,” said Dennis Gingold, lawyer for the individual account holders.

At issue is how much of the royalty money was held by the government over the years, and whether it went to the Indian trust holders, to third parties or was held in the government treasury. Because many of the records have been lost or destroyed, it is now up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much the individual Indians – many of whom are nearing the end of their lives – should be paid.

If a dollar amount were awarded, it is uncertain how the government would pay it.

Congress may have to set the money aside, a tough sell in tight times. The Indian plaintiffs argue that the money could paid directly and does not require action by Congress.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arizona’s John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, tried to prompt a settlement in the case three years ago, when McCain led the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. But they were not able to get the two sides to agree on an amount.

The government later offered the Indian plaintiffs less than $7 billion to settle the case, but they immediately rejected that offer.

Filed by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., the lawsuit deals with individual Indians’ lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.