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WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) released a letter to tribal leaders throughout Indian Country. In his letter, he requested feedback from the tribes on the proposed settlement of the Cobell v. Salazar class action settlement.
Senator Barrasso, Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, made the following remarks about the letter:
“Since it was announced last December there have been many questions asked about some aspects of the proposed settlement. Some people support the settlement in its current form. Some do not. In fact, some voices have expressed very strong concerns about it.”
“I share some of those concerns.”
“I would like to hear from tribal leaders and their constituents. Should the settlement be revised to address some of the concerns that have been raised? I would like a better sense of where Indian Country stands on some of the calls for changes.”
“Because time is short, and no bill has been introduced yet in either the House or the Senate, I am suggesting 5 areas for amendment or revision, either to the settlement itself or to the draft legislation that the parties have proposed. These suggested revisions would deal with some of the concerns I’ve heard.”
In his letter, Senator Barrasso suggested the following amendments to the Cobell settlement:
• Cap pre-settlement date attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs at $50 million.
• Limit any “incentive awards” under the settlement to named plaintiffs to actual, unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses incurred by that plaintiff.
• Have the court-appointed Special Master, after receiving recommendations from the parties and subject to the Court’s approval, select the bank that the settlement proposes for holding the settlement funds based on the bank’s experience, institutional capacity to administer large deposits of this nature, competitive rates of interest, and other relevant factors as determined by the Court or the Special Master
• Require the Department to consult with Indian tribes in planning, designing, and setting the priorities for the fractional interest acquisition program under the settlement, and to allow Indian tribes to participate or assist in implementing the program.
• Set aside $50 million from the $1.412 billion settlement monies as a reserve fund and authorize the Special Master to use the fund to make discretionary, non-appealable supplements to in the settlement payments to the members of the new “Trust Administration Class” that would be created pursuant to the settlement, to address specific instances where the Special Master determines the formula payment is insufficient or unfair.
The proposed Cobell v. Salazar class action settlement would resolve the class action lawsuit that has been pending in Federal court in Washington D.C. for almost 14 years. The total amount of money that would be distributed as settlement funds would be $1.412 billion.
The settlement must be approved by Congress and the Federal court judge overseeing the case. It would provide members of the existing class in the lawsuit, some 340,000 owners of individual Indian money, accounts administered by the Department of the Interior. Each owner would receive $1000 to settle their claims.
The settlement would also create a second class, whose membership would substantially overlap with the existing class. The claims of the second class, relating to damages for mismanagement of trust lands and other trust assets, would be new to the case. The settlement would settle these new claims as well and provide additional compensation to members of that class in the form of a $500 per capita payment and a payment based on a formula.
The settlement would also provide $2 billion to the Department of the Interior to use to purchase fractional interests in Indian lands. The Department contends that the extreme fractionation of individual Indian lands over the past 100 years contributed to the events that gave rise to the Cobell lawsuit.
The current deadline under the settlement for Congressional approval is May 28, 2010.