Eloise Cobell

Elouise Cobell, a Montana resident and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, was the lead plaintiff in a 15-year battle to reclaim royalties lost by Native Americans for more than a century.

Two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday that would cap lawyers’ fees in the $3.4 billion Cobell lawsuit settlement at $50 million.

“Let’s be clear: Every dollar paid to attorneys is a dollar that comes out of the pockets of individual Indians in this settlement,” said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state. “This handful of lawyers is trying to take an obscene share of the money. This settlement should be about fair treatment of the 400,000 affected individuals in Indian Country, not lawyers looking to strike it rich.”

If it passes, the bill would kill the settlement reached after 14 years of costly and acrimonious litigation, said Washington, D.C., attorney Dennis M. Gingold.

“Doc Hastings wanted to kill the settlement before, and he wants to kill it now,” the attorney said.

Gingold and Kirkpatrick, Townsend and Stockton, another firm with offices in the District of Columbia, represented hundreds of thousands of American Indians in a class action lawsuit that accused the government of mismanaging individual Indian trust funds.

The attorney called the proposed legislation an “unprecedented intervention in a case before a U.S. district judge” and charged that it was “spun for political theater.”

The legislation was proposed by Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee, and Hastings, who is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

They charge that the settlement agreement set attorneys’ fees at between $50 million and $99.9 million, but that the attorneys filed a petition with the court seeking $223 million “pursuant to a previously unknown contingency fee agreement, the exact details of which are still undisclosed.”

“There are concerns that the plaintiffs misled the committee as well as their nearly 400,000 Indian clients,” Young said. “For this reason, there is a need for legislation to place a cap on the fees and to examine why plaintiffs failed to disclose information that Congress and affected Indians had a right to know.”

Gingold said the attorneys did ask $99.9 million in fees, but also presented the judge with arguments that could support an award of up to $223 million. The figures of $50 million to $99.9 million in the settlement agreement were not binding on the judge, but were amounts the parties agreed not to contest.

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Attorneys’ fees were not specifically set in the settlement. Under its terms, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan of Washington, D.C., would determine how much the attorneys get.

A fairness hearing, which will include arguments for attorneys’ fees, has been set for June 20.

Gingold said there were no hidden fees in the settlement agreement and that every word in the document had been gone over with lawmakers and their staffs during a 12-month period. Hastings and Young should not have been surprised by anything it contained, he said.

The settlement was passed in both the House and the Senate in November and was signed by President Obama on Dec. 8. The House voted in favor, 256-152.

That the settlement passed so readily in both the House and Senate and has the support of the administration probably does not bode well for legislation that would effectively kill it.

Attorneys’ fees will come out of the $1.5 billion common fund set aside in the $3.4 billion settlement agreement. The common fund will be used to compensate individual Indians who have trust accounts with the Department of Interior. Most will receive about $1,800.

Gingold said he found it ironic that no one raised an eyebrow at the $285 million the government will be charging in fees and costs from a $1.9 billion fund set up in the agreement to buy fractionated lands for the tribes.

If the court granted $223 million in attorneys’ fees, it would represent just 14.75 percent of common fund and be well below attorneys’ fees awarded in other very large lawsuits. Gingold said he and other attorneys in the case had been carrying the lawsuit for 15 years without being paid.

The attorney also said he found it ironic that Young was one of the biggest advocates of $223 million federal appropriation of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in his home state of Alaska.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com.

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com