Blackfeet woman sees end to her 14-year fight with the government over misused Indian money

BROWNING, Mont. (AP) — Elouise Cobell sat behind her cluttered desk here in the windblown heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and peered at a visitor through dark glasses that couldn't quite hide the deep bruise that ran down her cheek to her jaw.

Her appearance made her a bit self-conscious, offering an unexpected glimpse of a woman who had built a reputation for fearlessness after 14 years standing toe-to-toe with the federal government in an attempt to recover billions of dollars of squandered Indian trust money.

Cobell, 64, fainted in Washington, D.C., during a trip in April to meet with congressional leaders. She hit the sidewalk hard and was rushed to the hospital to treat a fractured orbital bone. She hadn't slept the night before her collapse and spent that whole day rushing from meeting to meeting, she explained.

But with the end in sight to her long fight — a $3.4 billion settlement that could be approved by Congress this month — the bruises have not slowed her down. Neither has the buildup to the vote, which has meant countless meetings, phone calls and dusty road trips to remote parts of Indian country.

"I want us to win for once, you know? Indians are always losing," Cobell said. "This is the people's own money. This is not the government's money, this is their own money that we're fighting for."

Cobell's class-action lawsuit represents at least 300,000 and maybe as many as 500,000 Indians who own property that the government holds in trust for them. The Department of Interior leases that land to others to farm or develop resources, and by agreement is supposed to pay the Indians the money generated by the land into Individual Indian Money trust accounts, or IIMs.

Cobell grew up hearing stories of the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs shortchanging these IIM account holders. She saw how non-Indians who leased the land were making money off the oil or timber or crops it produced while its Indian owners remained poor.

She became an accountant, and then the Blackfeet tribe's treasurer. Tribal elders asked Cobell to write letters to the government asking why they weren't getting their trust money. Those who got the occasional green government check never received an explanation or a statement of what was in their IIM accounts. Visits to the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices could be bewildering.

"The government would tell people when they came in, 'You can't really do that' — there were just all kinds of can'ts and can'ts and can'ts," she said.

In fact, there was no real accounting of how much money was in the trust pool of IIM accounts, she discovered. And as she dug deeper, she realized there was nobody standing up for the individuals landowners, not even the tribes.

"By the time I got more and more into this, I knew the abuse was horrible. So how can you walk away from it? How could you feel like a person and walk away from the corruption?"

Cobell filed her lawsuit in 1996. She thought it would take three years, tops, to convince the government to settle.

"But I was wrong. They dug in really hard on this one, the hardest I've ever seen them dig into anything. So I knew there was a lot of money (involved)," Cobell said.

The government does not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but has called it "both honorable and responsible."

Cobell's lead attorney in the case is Dennis Gingold, a top banking attorney she met in a 1992 meeting called by the first Bush administration in an attempt to sort out the Indian trust money dispute. He thought then that the government was lucky it hadn't been sued.

Gingold joined Cobell in bringing suit, and promised he would stick with her, even if there was no money to pay him.

"Nobody in his right mind would want to do this," he told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. "I thought it was important for my kids to understand that there are things worth fighting for."

Some have questioned how much Gingold and his team of lawyers would receive in this settlement. Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming has proposed capping lawyer's fees at $50 million. Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington sent a letter to Gingold saying it was reasonable to limit those fees so the Indians would receive more.

Gingold and Cobell both say Congress doesn't have the authority to change the agreement, and that the proposed fee of just under $100 million would represent just 3 percent of the total settlement.

"He has really uncovered the entire behavior of the United States government when it comes to managing Indian Trust assets," Cobell said of Gingold.

Gingold can tick off a whopping list of numbers that highlights the 14-year fight: more than 3,600 court filings; 220 days of trial; 80 published court decisions; 10 interlocutory appeals.

The district court ruled in 1999 that the government had breached its trust duties, a ruling that held up on appeal in 2001. The fight went on over whether the government had to provide an accounting to the IIM holders — the district court ruled in 2008 that it did, which the appeals court reaffirmed last year.

The plaintiffs had originally asked for $47 billion, but under a proposed settlement signed in December, $1.4 billion would go to individual Indian account holders. Some $2 billion would be used by the government to buy up fractionated Indian lands from individual owners willing to sell, and then turn those lands over to tribes. Another $60 million would be used for a scholarship fund for young Indians.

The Interior Department largely has been silent on the case. But Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes acknowledged in an April 8 status conference before Robertson that the government has not lived up to its duties.

"We believe it is a historic settlement, an opportunity to turn the page on a period of history where the trustee has not performed as the trustee needs to," Hayes told the judge.

Reaching the settlement has been a major milestone in the case, but selling it has been complicated. Cobell has had to travel across Indian country the past couple of months in an attempt to clear up rumors and misconceptions.

Some wanted to know why was the settlement for so much less than what they thought had been lost. Others wanted to know whether it was true that she would be getting rich.

Cobell says the amount is the best they could hope for and that she expects to be awarded just like any other plaintiff. But she also plans to recover the $300,000 she spent to help fund the lawsuit, using money she was awarded in 1997 through a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

Additionally, her nonprofit, the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund, must repay at least $11 million in grants and loans from various foundations money that funded the lawsuit. The settlement allows her up to $15 million to repay those debts, a provision that sparked the rumors that she was getting a big payout.

The deadline for Congress to authorize the settlement and allocate the funds has been extended twice by the court. Cobell and Gingold are hopeful the settlement will be approved this time, but they say if the May 28 deadline passes without a vote, the deal could be terminated and years of additional litigation could ensue.

If that happens, Cobell said, her worst fears would be affirmed. Despite her 14-year fight, attitudes will not have changed.

Cobell said that she feels that she and the other Native Americans are still invisible to the rest of America.

"I get the feeling a lot that nobody really cares about Native Americans, that it's OK for them to live in poverty," she said. "They don't have a lot of money and they don't have a lot of votes, so who cares?"