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May 19, 2014

Frustration grows over $3.4B settlement delay

(Continued)

HELENA, Mont. —

Jennifer Keough, Garden City Group’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, did not return a call for comment.

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, recognizing the frustration, plan to ask a federal judge this week to allow the distribution to take place before the appeals are finalized.

“The agreement says that no trust administration class payments can be made until all the members are identified,” said David Smith, an attorney for Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton LLP. “There are a lot of appeals, and many are extremely lengthy. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to participate in the settlement and it’s not a rush job.”

At issue is the second of two distributions in one of the largest U.S. government settlements in history, prompted by a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Blackfeet elder Elouise Cobell of Montana. Cobell sued the government after realizing that many Indians who owned land held in trust for them by the government lived in poverty with no accounting of the royalties they were due when the Interior Department leased their land for development, exploration or grazing.

The lawsuit claimed the Interior Department mismanaged and squandered billions of dollars that were supposed to go to the landowners since the 1880s, but incomplete and missing records prevented them from determining how much was lost.

It took about 14 years to reach a settlement with the government, then another year for Congress to approve the deal in December 2010. It wasn’t until December 2012 that all the appeals over the settlement were dismissed and the first monetary distributions were mailed.

Those 339,106 beneficiaries, called the historical accounting class, received a flat payment of $1,000 apiece. That was the easy part.

The second round of distributions go to what is called the trust administration class in varying amounts based on a formula that looks at 10 years of the highest earnings in the royalty accounts held by the government, which are called Individual Indian Money trust accounts.

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