Today, the Departments of Interior and Justice and Eloise Cobell announced a settlement of the ongoing Cobell trust accounting litigation on behalf of Individual Indian account holders. The terms of the settlement:
- $1.4 billion dollars for settlement of accounting and mismanagement claims. This fund will be divided into two parts. Each account holder would receive $1000 for historical accounting claims. Resource mismanagement claims will be settled under a court-approved formula. The lawsuit must be modified to add resource mismanagement claims (not a part of the current litigation).
- $2 billion for addressing fractionation of individual Indian land. Small fractionated interests would be purchased from Indian landowners on a voluntary basis, and the consolidated land will be turned over to tribes under the terms of the Indian Land Consolidation Act.
- Creation of a Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust to make recommendations and oversee a performance audit of trust systems and controls. This provision appears to be intended to review the sunset of the Office of Special Trusteee.
- Approval by Congress and the Federal District Court Required. The settlement anticipates that Congressional approval will be required in order to use the federal Judgment Fund for the settlement. In addition, the overall terms of the settlement must be approved by the U.S. District Court.
There are many more details about the settlement available on the Department of Interior website at www.doi.gov and at www.cobellsettlement.com.
The proposed settlement of the litigation represents a significant breakthrough on an issue that has troubled Indian country for many decades. The settlement amount is lower than was expected when the litigation began, but is significantly higher than the $456 million awarded by Judge Robertson after a trial in 2008. The higher amount likely represents the value of adding trust mismanagement claims to the accounting claims. In addition, the funds for consolidating fractionated lands under tribal ownership will help to resolve longstanding land management problems and will increase economic development opportunities.