Risk Management

Lawsuit Seeks Billions for Land Leasing

The Interior Department has reportedly spent $100 million to reconcile the trust accounts of American Indians; more than $100 billion deposited in ...
Craig SchneiderAugust 31, 2005

Cobell vs. Norton, reportedly the largest and longest-running class-action lawsuit against the federal government, claims that the United States cannot provide an accounting of billions of dollars held in trust for 500,000 American Indians and their heirs, reported The Arizona Republic.

Earlier this week, Elouise Cobell — a Blackfoot Indian from Montana who is the lead plaintiff in the case, as well as a rancher and banker — urged Arizona tribal members to get more deeply involved, wrote the Republic.

Since at least 1887, when the trust accounts were established, the United has leased Indian lands for such activities as farming, grazing, mining, and logging. According to the newspaper, however, the Department of the Interior — citing poor record-keeping and incompetent administrators — can account only for 1988 to the present. Interior Secretary Gale Norton maintains that it is impossible to provide an accurate accounting, added the paper.

In a July ruling, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth reportedly wrote that Interior’s tenure as trustee has been “shot through with bureaucratic blunders, flubs, goofs and foul-ups, and peppered with scandals, deception, dirty tricks and outright villainy, the end of which is nowhere in sight.”

More than $100 billion deposited in trust funds may be lost, added AccountingWeb.com. The website also noted that the Interior Department has already spent $100 million to reconcile the trust accounts, and that the total needed to reconcile the trusts back to 1887 could amount to $10 billion.

In June, Indian tribes offered to settle the case for $27.5 billion, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Congress would not approve such an amount.

The minuscule and erratic payouts for land leasing contrast sharply with the billions of dollars being made by Indians in the gaming industry. According to AccountingWeb.com, tribes grossed $19 billion from 367 casinos in 2004.