Indian trust trial could lead to big U.S. payout

by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

Reposted From: www.indiantrust.com

WASHINGTON — Committed to ending a long-running and contentious lawsuit, a federal judge Wednesday ordered a June trial that may determine whether the federal government owes billions of dollars to American Indians for mismanaging their trust accounts.

“It is time to bring this matter to a close with a decision of one kind or another,” U.S. District Judge James Robertson said at a hearing.

Robertson, the second judge to preside over the class-action lawsuit filed in 1996, gave the Indian plaintiffs two weeks to file a claim detailing how much money has been lost by individual Indians since 1887 because of the government’s breach of its trust duties.

He gave government attorneys a timetable for responding and said he would begin a trial on June 9.

“I am absolutely committed to getting this case resolved with something like a final judgment this summer,” Robertson said.

Dennis Gingold, the lead attorney for the Indians, said after the hearing on Wednesday that he didn’t know how much money the Indians would seek but that it would be in the billions.

When Congress was working to resolve the case legislatively two years ago, the Indians said that they would accept $27.5 billion.

Gingold said he didn’t know whether the claim now would be more than that.

Background on the case
The lawsuit filed in 1996 has taken many a winding trail since the Indian plaintiffs first accused the government of mismanaging their trust accounts and asked for a proper accounting of their funds.

The trust accounts were created to hold the proceeds from oil and gas drilling, grazing, timber cutting and other uses on individual Indians’ land. There are about 300,000 individual account holders, an estimated 53,000 in Oklahoma.

After decades of complaints about mismanagement, Congress passed a law in 1994 requiring reforms in the trust system and an accounting of how much money Indians should have. The Indians sued under that law, claiming the government was not complying.

Robertson ruled in January that accurate re-creations of accounts going back more than a century would be impossible and said it was time to end a case that has seen several trials, top government officials held in contempt of court, numerous appeals and the removal of the first judge in the case.

His ruling was a victory for the Indians, who had long claimed that an “historical accounting” couldn’t be done because millions of records had been lost or destroyed.

U.S. Justice Department attorney Robert Kirschman told Robertson on Wednesday that the Indians weren’t entitled to “damages” in the case because they didn’t seek them when they filed the case.

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