Indian Country is waiting anxiously as legislation to settle the Cobell trust fund case for $8 billion is close to being finalized.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee was due to release the latest version of the Indian Trust Reform Act last Friday. But a briefing that had been scheduled on that day was abruptly canceled and a markup that was to be held this Wednesday was pushed back a week.
The official word from Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, was that the markup will be held August 2. A top aide from the Republican side of the panel told tribal leaders and Indian advocates there was a scheduling issue.
But given the controversial nature of the billion-dollar settlement figure some are wondering whether the bill has a chance anymore. They are eagerly hoping for final resolution of a case that has dragged on for a decade, following more than century of mismanagement of Indian trust funds.
"They told everyone the number was going to be $8 billion but it's not going to happen," said a Washington lobbyist and former Congressional staffer. "It's just dumbfounding."
Earlier this month, McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the committee, sat down with new Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Joining them was Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, and a representative of Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the top Democrat on Resources.
At the time, McCain told Kempthorne the settlement figure was going to be $8 billion. Although Kempthorne didn't support or oppose the amount, according to people familiar with the meeting, he has openly told tribal leaders he wants to resolve the case.
A week after the Interior meeting, top Senate staffers met with the Cobell plaintiffs. They were also told the figure was going to be $8 billion.
"Take it or leave it," was the message from McCain, one person familiar with the meeting said. "The senator was going to go ahead with it, with or without the parties' agreement."
Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs, would not discuss the negotiations because Senate staff asked the parties not to disclose any specific information. But he said that McCain, Dorgan and the other leader had arrived at a settlement figure.
"I cannot confirm the actual number but I can confirm that a specific number was told to us," he said in an interview. "And it's our understanding that a specific number was told to the government."
With the markup pushed back a week, it's not clear whether the amount will remain the same once the bill is unveiled. The legislation is expected to include provisions that would allow individual Indians to opt out of the settlement and continue to negotiate their claims on a case-by-case basis.
To discuss the latest developments, the Cobell plaintiffs, the National Congress of American Indians and other interested parties are meeting this afternoon at the offices of Kilpatrick Stockton. The firm recently hired Harper to head up its Indian law team, and several other attorneys who are working on the Cobell case are also part of the team.
Indian Trust Reform Act:
S.1439 | H.R.4322
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne -