Federal judge awards Native Americans $455M

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US District Judge James Robertson on Thursday ruled in a 12-year class action lawsuit concerning the US government's alleged mismanagement of trust funds for a group of some 500,000 Native Americans. Plaintiffs led by Eloise Cobell had argued that the federal government owed them $58 billion, representing its profits from land use violative of trust terms, but the government said that only $455.6 million was missing from the account. Robertson accepted the government's number, finding that the method used to calculate the $58 billion figure was inaccurate and that there was no evidence of active fraud by the US Department of the Interior:

   My conclusions, after attempting to apply a suitably adjusted set of equitable principles to the facts of this case, are that plaintiffs have properly asserted a claim for restitution; that this Court has both the jurisdiction and the power to adjudicate that claim; and that the evidence supports an award in the amount of $455,600,000, a number that is within the range of the government's own admitted "uncertainty" about the amount necessary to restore the proper balance to the IIM trust. I have rejected the plaintiffs' claim of entitlement to an additional sum representing "benefit to the government."

Robertson said in April that he would set a dollar figure on the US government's alleged mismanagement when the case went to trial in June. A judge will decide how to restore and distribute the missing money at a future hearing.

Congress established the Indian trust in 1887 to hold proceeds from government-arranged leases of Indian lands. In an incendiary opinion in 2005, District Court Judge Royce Lamberth required the Interior Department to apologize to the plaintiffs for its handling of the trust, and to admit that information being provided to them regarding outstanding lost royalties on earnings from Indian land may be unreliable. In 2006, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit removed Lamberth and reassigned the case to Robertson. In March 2007, the plaintiffs rejected a $7 billion settlement proposal from the US government. In January, Robertson ruled that the DOI "unreasonably delayed" the accounting of billions of dollars of American Indian money, holding that it was impossible for the Interior Department or for Congress to remedy the breach.

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