Cobell and Keepseagle in Limbo 

by Rob Capriccioso
Indian Country Today

 28 April 2010

WASHINGTON – The possibility of two substantial financial settlements involving Indian interests continues to hang in the balance, with several well-publicized deadlines having passed without federal action.

The separate and unique cases are known as Cobell v. Salazar and Keepseagle v. Vilsack. The former centers on claims by thousands of Indians that the federal government mismanaged billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Department of the Interior for Indian trustees since 1887. The latter involves thousands of tribal plaintiffs who contend that Department of Agriculture officials denied or delayed a number of farm and ranch loans and emergency assistance applications by Indians.

Cobell has been ongoing since 1996; Keepseagle since 1999. Many Indians who would have benefited from settlement in both cases have passed away, according to their lawyers and plaintiffs. Many who survive live in extreme poverty.

Three deadlines have expired for Congress to approve a settlement for Cobell, worked out between the Indian plaintiffs and the Obama administration in early December. The expired deadlines were in December, February, and now April.

A new deadline, agreed to by the Indian plaintiffs and the federal government, gives Congress until the end of May to approve a settlement. The parameters of the agreement call for $1.4 billion for individual Indian trust fund beneficiaries and $2 billion for a land consolidation program to be overseen by Interior to buy back fractionated trust lands.

Dennis Gingold, the lead lawyer for the Indians, said the latest deadline, May 31, is likely to be the last. If Congress doesn’t act by that time, he said the suit is set to go on in court.

“The district judge [Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia] declared that he does not want further extensions of the Dec. 7, 2009 settlement agreement, and he set a date certain in that regard,” Gingold said.

“That is a fair decision in view of representations made by the government that our settlement would be ratified by Congress on or before the end of December 2009. If the settlement agreement expires, plaintiffs will resume intense litigation against Treasury and Interior on all matters relevant to the case, including the renewal of matters that remain unresolved and the refiling of motions that have been dismissed without prejudice as a necessary predicate to settlement.”

Gingold said the situation does not surprise him, as he’s been in Washington since 1976.

Keepseagle also involves large financial claims, and, like Cobell, Indian plaintiffs have had to wait long and hard for settlement to progress. Unlike Cobell, an actual number has yet to be laid on the table by the Obama administration.

Indian plaintiffs agreed in December to a stay of their litigation as USDA officials signaled they wanted to talk. They then agreed to an extension in February until April 21.

Just before that deadline hit, USDA requested more time, and the plaintiffs agreed. The parties filed a joint motion to extend the negotiation settlement talks through May 26 with a status conference the same day and a status report due May 20.

The backdrop for the extensions involves a February decision by the Obama administration to provide $1.25 billion more to a class of black farmers who had similar claims as the Indian plaintiffs. The black farmers had already been paid $1 billion.

An expert report prepared by Indian plaintiffs estimates that alleged discrimination in various USDA departments toward Native American farmers caused the farmers to be denied about $3 billion in credit, resulting in between $500 million and $1 billion in damages.

At the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack promised to resolve the situation. At a February Agriculture Subcommittee hearing, he again noted Keepseagle, this time talking about settlement figures.

“There are numbers being discussed,” Vilsack testified, although he said there was a wide gap between the parties on a settlement figure.

Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in early April that his Indian clients have been frustrated with the pace of talks, and settlement seems elusive.

Reps. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., co-chairs of the House Native American Caucus, sent a letter in March to Vilsack, saying he should settle under similar terms as those in the African-American farmer deal.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.