Cobell says trust funds mismanaged by government

by Amelia Acosta | 10/17/10 10:00pm

Elouise Cobell has spent the last 14 years suing the federal government. In the course of her lawsuit which aims to recover billions of dollars of Native American claimants' money, lost to federal mismanagement she has had to deal with disappearing court documents and the questionable removal of a presiding judge, she said in a speech Friday.

As the keynote speaker for the Tuck Native American Leadership and Economic Development Conference, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of Dartmouth's Native American Program, Cobell argued that the political system in Washington, D.C., could not be trusted.

"I don't think we can change things until there's some sort of discipline put towards Congress," Cobell said. "Washington's broke and it needs to be fixed."

Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, brought suit against the Department of the Interior in 1996 for failing to maintain adequate records on several billion dollars of funds held in trust for Indian beneficiaries in Individual Indian Money accounts, and for losing or converting the money in these funds for the government's own use, according to court documents.

Mishandling of tribal money was widely overlooked because the infractions were committed by the United States government, and not a private company, Cobell argued.

"If this had been the private sector and this money had been stolen and mismanaged, people would have complained," Cobell said.

Cobell said she was apprehensive about filing suit against the federal government, but felt that she had a duty to represent Native American populations.

"That morning [the suit was filed,] I took a walk and passed by the Lincoln Memorial and got goose bumps all over," Cobell said. "I thought I'm too scared I'm suing the U.S. government.' So I dashed back to my hotel room and called a friend. She told me, Well, Eloiuse, if you don't do it, who will?'"

The case was settled in 2009, with the federal government awarding the plaintiffs approximately $3.5 billion, significantly less than the $40 billion settlement the plaintiffs originally demanded. The recent recession likely played a part in determining the sum of the settlement, Cobell said.

"I think that, given the situation and the timing, that's the best we're going to get from the United States government," Cobell said, adding that the time that President Barack Obama spent in Indian land during his 2008 presidential campaign helped lead to the case's settlement.

During the years of litigation, Cobell said federal officials used illegal means to hide evidence that could be used against them.

"A lot of times the government started destroying documents and records, and it was necessary to file protective orders," she said.

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was held in contempt of court for this infraction, but was not punished further, Cobell said.

On July 11, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia removed Judge Royce Lamberth from the case after he had presided over the litigation for 10 years, Cobell said.

"The government argued that he had lost all objectivity because his statements were too biased towards the plaintiffs," Cobell said.

Cobell said that the judicial replacement interrupted the flow of the case.

"[Judge James Robertson was] trying to catch up on 10 years of litigation," Cobell said. "Judge Lamberth wasn't biased."

Cobell suggested that business schools and private companies, rather than the Department of the Interior, should manage Native American business and savings accounts.

"I think it's just such a broken system," she said. "It's basically You scratch my back, and I scratch yours.'"

Other highlights of the conference were case studies on Native American entrepreneurial ventures and panel discussions led primarily by Dartmouth alumni currently working in business.

"One idea that was brought up was how difficult it is for natives to come back and work for their community," Karl Hill '91, sub-chief for the Heron Clan, who attended the conference, said. "There's a great need for experienced workers, but it's very difficult to keep educated Native Americans in their community. They're coming out of school with tens of thousands of dollars in loans, and they're expected to perform these high-responsibility jobs in their communities for next to nothing."

Several Dartmouth undergraduates attended the conference, some as part of the Native American Studies 25 course "Indian Country Today."

"The conference offered a different perspective, as usually you don't hear about the economy in Indian country at all," Desiree Deschenie '11, a student who attended the conference, said. "It's there, but nobody talks about it."

Cody Riggers '11 said she was excited to see the expanding presence of the Native American Studies Department.

"It's interesting to know alumni who went to Dartmouth 20 or 30 years ago when the NAS department was really small," she said. "It's also interesting to help start to build a bridge between business and the NAS advising program."

The conference concluded with an information fair, allowing attendees to meet the day's panelists and speakers and discuss potential business and internship opportunities.

Marina Villeneuve contributed reporting to this article.