By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008
A federal judge ruled yesterday that Native Americans suing the U.S. government over mismanaged royalties collected from gas and oil companies that drilled on their lands are entitled to $455 million -- far less than the $47 billion they were seeking.
The ruling is the latest -- and probably not the last -- chapter in a 12-year legal dispute that U.S. District Judge James Robertson compared to Charles Dickens's legal tome, "Bleak House," in a January opinion.
Robertson's ruling yesterday focused on how much royalty money was withheld from trust accounts managed by the Department of Interior on behalf of half a million Native Americans and their heirs over the past 121 years.
The Native Americans' attorneys said that the government had badly mismanaged the trusts and that there was a shortfall of nearly $4 billion. At a June bench trial, the lawyers said the Native Americans were owed $47 billion, a figure that represented the "benefit" the government received from improperly using the missing money. That figure was lower than the $58 billion estimate given before the trial started.
However, Robertson found their arguments unconvincing. The Native Americans' calculations suffer "from numerous methodological flaws that were illuminated by the government's presentation and, in many instances, are obvious to anyone having basic familiarity with the case," the judge wrote.
The government's lawyers had argued that only several hundred million dollars was in dispute, an amount similar to what Robertson awarded.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, which represented the government, declined to comment, saying only that lawyers were reviewing the opinion.
Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the dispute, said in a statement that she is "disappointed" by the ruling and is weighing whether to appeal.
"We believe we presented a strong, compelling case," she said.
Cobell, a leader of the Blackfeet tribe in northwest Montana, filed the class-action lawsuit in 1996, seeking to force the Interior Department to account for billions of dollars in royalties from Indian lands held in trust by the government. The origins of the suit date to 1887, when the government divided up millions of acres of Indian reservation land and parceled it out to individual Native Americans, then put the lots into trusts controlled by the Interior department.
On behalf of the Native Americans, the government then leased the land to oil, gas and other companies.
The government has run into trouble trying to account for the money. Many records are missing. Some are kept in different forms and others were destroyed.