WASHINGTON — A judge has granted more time for Congress to approve a $3.4 billion settlement against the government for swindling Indian tribes out of royalties for oil, gas and grazing leases.
But U.S. District Judge James Robertson warned that the latest delay — which moves the deadline for congressional action from April 16 to May 28 — is the last he will approve. The delay is the third since the settlement was reached in December.
"From where I sit, the settlement appears to be a win-win proposition," Robertson said at a court hearing Thursday. "It needs to get done."
If Congress does not confirm the settlement by mid-May, Robertson said, he will order Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other top officials to appear before him to explain why.
The proposed settlement, which would end a 14-year legal case, calls for the Interior Department to distribute $1.4 billion to more than 300,000 Indian tribe members across nearly all 50 states. The government also would also have to spend $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations and create a $60 million Indian Education Scholarship fund.
Most lawsuit participants would receive at least $1,500, and many would receive considerably more.
If cleared by Congress and Robertson, the settlement would be the largest Indian claim ever approved against the U.S. government, exceeding the combined total of all previous settlements of Indian claims.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes called the proposed settlement historic and said it represents "an opportunity to turn the page on a period of history" in which the federal government did not meet its legal or moral obligation to Indian tribes.
The Interior Department manages about 56 million acres of land and leases it for mining, grazing and oil and gas production. Money collected from those leases is distributed to more than 384,000 individual Indian accounts and about 2,700 tribal accounts.
The 1996 lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana, alleged the government had breached its responsibility to manage assets belonging to American Indians and had refused to fix a flawed accounting system that led to the loss of billions of dollars.
Keith Harper, one of Cobell's lawyers, said the settlement "is a win for our trust beneficiaries, a win for Indian country, and it turns the page on a problematic past."
Cobell and others involved in the case are disappointed that Congress has not yet acted, Harper said, but are confident that approval is imminent.
Under the deal, Harper and other lawyers would be paid between $50 million and $100 million. Cobell and three other plaintiffs could receive up to $15 million to reimburse them for expenses paid.
Some Indian leaders have complained that the settlement favors the government and the Cobell team.
Richard Monette, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said at a public hearing last month that, if enacted, the proposed Cobell settlement "will itself be a breach of trust."
Monette told a House panel the deal appeared to be structured in a way to benefit Cobell and her lawyers, rather than the majority of individual Indians.
But Harper said there is widespread support for the deal. Cobell and other leaders in the case have conducted about 40 meetings in a dozen states, "and in the vast majority of those, there is not a single dissent," Harper said.
Cobell herself, in testimony last month to Congress, called the negotiations tough.
"I think I did the best job that I could, along with my class counsel, to negotiate a settlement. I felt we were owed much more money, but this could go on for hundreds of years," she said.