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
“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
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
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.