Attorneys search for Cobell beneficiaries

Mike Erwinmerwin@examiner-enterprise.com

While a majority of the $3.4-billion settlement in the Cobell trust fund lawsuit has been awarded, attorneys in the class-action case are intensifying their search for more eligible beneficiaries.

Through the end of 2015, nearly $1.2 billion had been paid to individual Native American recipients, a recent filing in the federal court case states. The figure represents more than 94 percent of the funds available for the settlement — which the U.S. Government is paying to resolve allegations that federal officials had mismanaged Indian trust accounts for more than a century. Initial payments were sent to Cobell plaintiffs in December 2012.

The filing makes reference to the late Elouise Cobell, who initiated the lawsuit in 1996: “Ms. Cobell worked tirelessly to see this injustice rectified,” it states. “The settlement that is her legacy needs to be fulfilled.”

All reasonable efforts are being made to find additional individuals who are eligible for shares of the settlement, the filing says. The search continues for tens of thousands of the beneficiaries who remain unidentified or unlocated due to inaccurate records, inadequate data and other varieties of misinformation.

To overcome these problems, attorneys have been working closely with Indian leaders, tribal governments, the Interior Department and the Garden City Group, a professional firm in charge of administering the settlement. Their goal is to find as many beneficiaries as possible — including the heirs of many persons who have passed on — by April 30.

The lawyers cited efforts involving the Osage Nation as exemplifying the massive and ongoing outreach. According to the filing, Cobell staffers were allowed to examine Osage enrollment records last spring, which resulted in an additional $4.46 million in settlement funds being paid to Osage citizens and their descendants. IndianTrust.com website listed names of more than 700 Osages whose estates and descendants were believed to have been owed about $9 million.

More than 30,000 beneficiaries were being sought nationwide, case workers had said. Their review of enrollment records for four Minnesota tribes found 3,500 more eligible beneficiaries who were entitled to another $4.8 million of the Cobell settlement, according to the attorneys.

“It would be an understatement to say that the distribution and outreach efforts to date by class counsel and GCG (Garden City Group) have been incredibly extensive,” says the filing. “Indeed, we cannot locate one other settlement where such intensive efforts have occurred or where the location of previously unidentified class members has been so successful.”

Cobell settlements included two payments. Initially, a $1,000 check for each beneficiary to resolve the federal government’s failure to perform a historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. According to the latest filing, more than 96 percent of the members of the Historical Accounting Class have either been paid or are in the process of being paid.

The second payment went out in September 2014 and addressed the government’s general fiduciary failures. With award amounts based on a formula tied to the level of activity in a person’s IIM account, checks ranged from an average of $869 to a high of $10 million.

According to Cobell attorneys, 88 percent of the members Trust Administration Class have been paid or are in the process of being paid, and that number is expected to rise as outreach and other efforts continue. Around 38,000 unidentified living class members and nearly 23,000 estates still need to be examined to determine whether those beneficiaries are owed money, the attorneys said. The plaintiffs and Garden City Group plan to work with the government over the next four months as part of their “reasonable efforts” to distribute as much of the settlement as possible.

In the event money is left over, the settlement calls for it to be deposited into the Cobell scholarship fund, which currently includes a balance of $35 million. Sales from the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations — another key component of the settlement — have further boosted the scholarship amount.

The program will send even more money to Indian Country as individual Indians are paid for selling fractional interests in properties. By the end of 2015, more than $732 million has been accepted by willing participants. The settlement calls for the $1.9-billion program to continue for 10 years. Initial offers went out in late 2013. With around six years remaining, there already have been nearly 1. 5 million acres restored to tribal ownership.

Cobellsettlement.com’s website states: “At this time, there are over 30,000 Class Members designated as Whereabouts Unknown and thousands more whose addresses on record with the Claims Administrator are not current. During the first distribution, eligible payments were deposited into a Class Member’s IIM Account.

“If you believe you or a family member may have a record that requires updating, please help identify such accounts so that future payments may be made directly to the class member,” according to the website.