Tester Seeks Progress Report on Cobell Settlement Implementation

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Chairman Continues to Provide Oversight of the Land Buy-Back Program

Jul 16, 2014

U.S. SENATE – Appearing before Congress for the first time, Garden City Group’s Chief Operating Officer, Jennifer Keough, testified today at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing covering the Cobell Settlement.  Garden City is the Cobell Settlement Claims Administrator handling direct payments to tribal members.

Committee Chairman Jon Tester expressed concern with the lack of progress on making final payments to individual Indians, “Four years after the Settlement was first agreed upon, and twenty months after final approval by the Courts, these payments have not gone out.”   

Keough told Tester that Garden City understands that hundreds of thousands of class members are waiting for a resolution of their claims and said, “We expect to be ready to issue all remaining payments owed to the class members expeditiously once the payment amounts are finally resolved by the parties and approved by Judge Hogan, as required by the terms of the Settlement.”

Witnesses also expressed frustrations with the delay in rolling out the Department of the Interior’s Land Buy Back Program, which was created out of the Cobell decision. The Department currently holds over 56 million acres of land in trust for tribes and individual American Indians.  Over 10 million of those acres are owned in a fractionated state, where the federal government holds the land in trust for multiple owners. The Chairman noted recent success, “While the Land Buy-Back Program has made great strides at a small number of reservations, there is a lot of work left to be done.  The Program is required to be carried out within 10 years, and we are now 20 months in.  To ensure it is successful within those 10 years, the Department of the Interior will need to expand to more reservations, and do so quickly.”

Fractionated land ownership severely inhibits development of the land, as any individual co-owner must obtain permission from the majority of other co-owners before the land can be put to use.  Many of these tracts have tens or hundreds of owners, which makes getting consent from co-owners nearly impossible.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe testified at today’s hearing as well, emphasizing the importance of eliminating fractionation and increasing tribal ownership interests on their reservation.  Helo Hancock, Legislative Director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, discussed early success in their buy-back process, “Landowner response to the initial outreach effort has been very positive and early indications point to rapid exhaustion of the initial purchase ceiling allocation of $4.1 million.”

But Susan Waukon, representing the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, raised concerns over delays, “Four years into implementation, the tribe understands that of the offers that have been extended on the reservations where the Buy-Back Program is active, the acceptance rate has been approximately 30 percent.  This acceptance rate may increase as the program learns more and becomes more efficient, but we believe a sense of urgency needs to accompany future efforts.”

Carole Lankford, Vice Chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana, also expressed concerns over implementation, “Given the hoops we had to jump through and the dozens of rewrites we had to negotiate, combined with what we are hearing from other tribes, we are concerned that the implementation of this important program will not achieve the intended result, which is to reduce the number of fractionated interests.” 

The Cobell Settlement totals $3.4 billion, with $1.5 billion going directly to individual Indians who owned trust assets held by the Department of the Interior.  Under the terms of the Settlement, these payments are to be made through two distributions.  The Garden City Group was appointed by the federal court to administer these payments.  

The first payments, consisting of $1,000 to each individual in the Historical Accounting Class of the lawsuit, were made in December 2012.   The second round of payments is yet to be distributed.  These payments will be made to individuals of the Trust Administration Class with the amount of the payment based on a formula prescribed in the Settlement Agreement.

Chairman Tester has made oversight of the Cobell Settlement Buy-Back Program a priority of the Committee, and has pushed for swifter action.  He committed to monitoring progress as the Buy-Back Program continues to reach more tribes.

 

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