Washington D.C.- A federal judge ruled on January 30th in favor of half-a-million Individual Indian Money account holders who argued the Department of Interior's accounting for their trust funds was totally insufficient. After 11 years of litigation in the courts and numerous Congressional hearings, in a 165-page decision, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge James Robertson declared that a historical accounting of the Indian trust is "impossible."
After a 10-day trial last October, Judge Robertson ruled in the Cobell v. Kempthorne case that the Interior Department is unable to perform an adequate accounting of the Individual Indian Money trust and that the government "has not" and "cannot" cure its breach of trust to hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries who have never been told how much money they are owed for the use of their land. Judge Robertson called for a hearing in 30 days to begin discussions on a remedy. The hearing has now been scheduled for March 5, 2008.
The Cobell v. Kempthorne case was filed in 1996 by the Native American Rights Fund and private attorneys. It is brought on behalf of approximately 500,000 past and present individual Indian trust beneficiaries. The individual Indian money account holders (plaintiffs) seek a full accounting of their trust assets for the entire period that such assets have been held in trust since 1887. Trustees, without exception, have a fiduciary duty to provide accurate and complete statement of accounts to each beneficiary at regular intervals and a complete and accurate accounting upon demand. Yet, the United States has never provided an accounting to individual Indian trust beneficiaries. It has never provided beneficiaries accurate and complete statement of accounts. In addition, plaintiffs ask that the account balances be restated in accordance with the accounting. Finally, plaintiffs seek reform of the trust management and accounting system.
Currently, there are over 11 million acres of land held in trust for the IIM beneficiaries. More than $300 million dollars pass through the U.S. Treasury on behalf of Indians annually from oil and agricultural leases, mining and water rights, rights-of-way and timber sales, and are collected by the Interior Department for distribution to the rightful owners.
Although the Native American Rights Fund has not been actively involved in the case over the past year, we intend to become re-involved as prospects for a Congressional settlement of the case improve.
To learn more about the class action lawsuit NARF filed on behalf of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes seeking full and complete accountings of trust funds that the United States government holds as trustee for the Tribes, visit tribaltrust.com.
To read recent articles published in the New York Times and other publications on the Cobell decision, visit the following links:
"The Verdict: It's Broken" Editorial by the New York Times, 2/1/08
"Indian Trust Funds: It's broke, so fix it" Editorial by Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2/4/08
"Settle the botched Indian trust case" Editorial by Seattle Times, 2/6/08