Native American Trust Fund: Massive Mismanagement

When the U.S. government took control of Native Americans’ property rights in 1887, Indians were assured they would receive all the income from their land. They never did. According to accounts from whistle-blowers, money belonging to individual Indians was pilfered, skimmed, redirected, or thrown in with general government funds by the U.S. Department of the Interior or its appointed representatives.

In 1996 banker Elouise Cobell filed a class action lawsuit charging the government mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, timber, grazing and other royalties on land owned by some 500,000 individual Indian beneficiaries.

After a trial in June 2008, Judge James Robertson ordered that the government is responsible for about $455 million of missing Native American money. The Native American plaintiffs expressed disappointment at the verdict, which holds the government accountable for only a fraction of the amount descendants claim to be owed, and have not yet said whether they will appeal.

In early December 2009, the government offered and the plaintiffs accepted a settlement in this 13-year-old case. The settlement provides $1.4 billion to be shared among the plaintiffs (yielding just $1000 per plaintiff). The federal government commits another $2 billion to buy up small shares of scattered properties from their current owners. The settlement includes the creation of a "$60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and ... a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward.

In late 2010, the House and Senate both approved the Cobell lawsuit settlement.

Dec 6, 2010

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