Judge Gives Nod to Cobell Settlement

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Kevin Abourezk is a higher education reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star and a freelance writer and editor. He has three children and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Judge Gives Nod to Cobell Settlement

Date Posted: 
2010-12-22 00:00

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A federal judge has approved the $3.4 billion Cobell v. Salazar settlement, sparking a nationwide search for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose names have been lost by the government.

Two weeks after President Obama signed the settlement, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan granted it preliminary approval this week. The settlement of the 15-year-old suit brought by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell provides compensation to nearly 600,000 Natives for the government's mismanagement of their trust fund assets.

Dennis Gingold, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said the government currently has the correct names and addresses for only half of the Native Americans potentially eligible for benefits. He said the plaintiffs would conduct a vigorous search for eligible beneficiaries.

Two firms with experience in finding members of large class-action lawsuits, Kinsella Media and The Garden City Group, will begin immediately the search process with a $20 million payment from the settlement funds, according to the plaintiffs. The judge also designated J.P. Morgan as the qualified bank to handle disbursement of the funds, after the judge learned no Native American bank was large enough to handle the settlement.

Gingold recommended J.P. Morgan, noting its work disbursing a multimillion dollar settlement involving tobacco companies.

"It's clear that both sides agree that it's a fair and reasonable settlement," Judge Hogan said.

Hogan said all settlement hearings will be open to the public and all letters and communication with the judge will be entered into the public record of the case.

A "fairness hearing" on the adequacy of proposed disbursements from the fund was tentatively set for June 20. Hogan set the end of an opt-out period in which individual Indian beneficiaries may seek a separate settlement with the government for April 20. The formal notification period is expected to begin Jan. 20, the judge said.