March 28, 2007

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Sets Public Hearing on Cobell Lawsuit Settlement Offer

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, announced Wednesday the committee will hold a hearing Thursday, March 29, on the Bush Administration’s proposal for settling the Cobell v. Kempthorne lawsuit.
The hearing is scheduled for 9:15 AM, in Room 485 of the Russell Senate Office Building.
Scheduled to testify are: Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne; Mrs. Elouise Cobell, Lead Plaintiff in Cobell v. Kempthorne; Mr. William W. Mercer, Acting Associate Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana; Mr. John Bickerman, Bickerman Dispute Resolution; Honorable William Martin, Vice President, InterTribal Monitoring Association on Indian Trust Funds; and Mr. John Echohawk, Executive Director, Native American Rights Fund.
On March 7, Dorgan announced he had received written notification from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary Kempthorne that the Bush Administration is offering up to $7 billion to settle lawsuits involving over a century of mismanagement of Indian trust fund accounts.
The March 29 hearing will provide an opportunity for the Administration to “publicly discuss the origin of the settlement offer and to explain its details,” Dorgan said. “It will also provide the plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, and others interested in this case to react publicly to the settlement offer,” he said.
The suit was filed by Elouise Cobell in 1996 against the Department of Interior. It seeks an accounting for well over a century of systematic mismanagement of Indian trust accounts by the department.
Under terms of the offer, the federal government would pay $7 billion over ten years, without interest. In exchange, all tribal and individual claims for mismanagement of the Indian trust fund accounts against the federal government would be dropped.
Dorgan said the offer was significant because it represents “the first time that the federal government has acknowledged a multi-billion dollar liability” for its mismanagement of Indian trust fund accounts. But, he added, he also expects the offer to be controversial. “Our hearing will provide an appropriate, public forum for a thorough discussion of the offer itself and the reaction to it by the plaintiff and other interested parties,” Dorgan said.