Appeals are being planned in a $3.4 billion settlement with the federal government over mismanaged Native American land royalties, but the attorneys who negotiated the deal are asking a judge to order the challengers to first each put up an $8.3 million bond.
The settlement aims to resolve a 15-year lawsuit that claims U.S. officials stole or squandered billions of dollars in land royalties meant for American Indians in exchange for oil, gas, grazing and other leases over a century. The number of American Indian plaintiffs in the settlement, which has been approved by Congress and a federal judge, could number 500,000 or more.
Boulder, Colo., resident Kimberly Craven, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate nation and a vocal opponent of the settlement, has filed a notice in federal court that she plans to appeal its approval. A separate notice of appeal also has been filed by a nonprofit group called the Harvest Institute Freedmen Federation and two individuals, Leatrice Tanner-Brown and William Warrior.
An appeal could delay by a year or more the disbursement of $1.5 billion to plaintiffs, plus put off reforms and a planned consolidation of fractionated Indian land included in the settlement, according to attorneys for the lawsuit's plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont.
They are asking U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan of Washington, D.C., to approve an $8.3 million appeal bond before either appeal can proceed.
"This is the largest settlement involving the government in American history and it resolves egregious breaches of trust that have continued for more than a century," lead plaintiffs' attorney Dennis Gingold wrote in an August filing with the court. The settlement is too important to give somebody a "free pass at delaying justice," he wrote.
Gingold told The Associated Press on Thursday that the appeal bond would cover lost interest, increased settlement administration costs, legal fees and assembling documents in the case.
"Appeals aren't free for anyone but the government," he said.
The Freedmen Federation, Tanner-Brown and Warrior argue they are entitled to an accounting of their funds that were held in trust by the U.S. government, but they've never been given a fair hearing on their claims. The federation is a partnership between a research and advocacy group called the Harvest Institute and the Black Indians United Legal Defense and Education Fund.
In past op-ed columns printed in newspapers and on websites, Craven has written the settlement would enrich Cobell, the other named plaintiffs and their lawyers, while leaving the rest of the plaintiffs to an uncertain fate.
Craven also has said the settlement was politically motivated and went beyond the scope of the lawsuit without any input from tribes.
In a response filed Thursday to the $8.3 million bond request, Craven said Cobell's attorneys wildly exaggerate the costs of an appeal and shouldn't be allowed to include their legal fees. Approving the bond would lead to another legal challenge that would only delay matters further, the response said.
The real aim of the expensive bond is to create an obstacle to her appeal, and Hogan should punish Cobell's attorneys for making such a bad-faith motion, Craven wrote.
"For all of plaintiffs' threats of seeking sanctions for a frivolous appeal, it is the plaintiffs who have made a frivolous legal argument meriting sanctions," she said.