WASHINGTON DC – An objection to the $3.4 billion taxpayer funded Cobell Indian Trust settlement was filed today by the Center for Class Action Fairness LLC. The objection was filed on behalf of Kimberly Craven, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Ovate tribe member and class member.
“This is a case about greed—greed that includes an ‘outrageous’ fee request that has resulted in bipartisan criticism,” states the introduction to the objection. “Class Counsel, more interested in maximizing their personal recovery than the interests of the class, have agreed to a settlement that violates the most basic standards of fairness required.”
In December 2009, the federal government agreed to the largest settlement ever in a case against it, establishing a $1.5 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund to buy fractionated land interests. The government also set up a $60 million scholarship fund for Native American college students.
Under the terms of the $3.4 billion settlement agreement, lawyers fees were limited to a maximum of $99.9 million. But now lawyers have submitted requests for over $223 million, more than double the amount agreed upon.
According to Ted Frank, the attorney who filed the objection, one lawyer claimed he billed “over 28,000 hours in seven years, including a 28.5-hour day.” A statement released by the Center for Class Action LLC asserts that the legal counsel wants “an unprecedented $13 million payment for themselves, raising conflict-of-interest questions that could preclude settlement approval.”
Counsel’s inflated request for payment has outraged both GOP and Democrat legislators alike, according to a recent article in the Lincoln Journal Star, which quoted former ND Senator Byron Dorgan:
“It’s a profound disappointment to me that the lawyers are trying to go beyond the agreement reached by Congress,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, told Indian Country Today. “This case was about trying to get money to Native Americans—not to lawyers.”
Cobell v. Salazar was filed in June 1996 by Ms.Cobell and four other Indian claimants on behalf of all present and past individual Indian trust beneficiaries. The Secretaries of the Interior, Treasury and the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs were named defendants. The case accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs of grossly mismanaging monies held in Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts.
After years of litigation, in 2006, Sen. John McCain worked to establish a $1 billion “clean-up” fund for the BIA along with a $7 billion settlement for IIM account owners. Counsel representing the defendants in the class action suit rejected McCain’s proposal, which would have limited attorneys fees to 3% to the total settlement amount. Instead, they continued their legal fight, seeking $27 billion, which the courts ruled against.
The case continued to be enmeshed in ongoing litigation until the settlement was finally reached in 2009.
The Center for Class Action Fairness, founded in 2009, is a not-for-profit program that provides pro bono representation to consumers and shareholders aggrieved by class action attorneys who negotiate settlements that benefit themselves at the expense of their clients.