A federal judge in Washington this afternoon preliminarily approved a landmark $3.4 billion settlement in a longstanding class action litigation over the mismanagement of trust fund assets for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.
Lawyers for lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell and a team of Justice and Interior Department attorneys urged Senior Judge Thomas Hogan to approve the deal. Hogan’s order kicks off a comprehensive notice plan to inform potentially 600,000 beneficiaries of the deal between the plaintiffs and the government.
Hogan and the opposing lawyers today in court recounted what they described as arms-length negotiations that produced a settlement in December 2009 to compensate individual Indians with trust assets held by the federal government. Cobell’s suit, filed in 1996 in Washington’s federal trial court, alleged decades of mismanagement of trust fund assets stemming from the use of land for oil, minerals, gas, timber and other resources.
The settlement required congressional authorization. After a year kicking around the House and Senate, Congress approved the settlement last month and President Barack Obama signed off on the deal earlier this month.
Justice Department attorney Robert Kirschman Jr. called the settlement a fair deal for the plaintiffs and for taxpayers.
A lead attorney for Cobell, Washington solo practitioner Dennis Gingold, said it’s the plaintiffs’ desire to move swiftly to implement the settlement. “Every step is important, and this was an important step,” Gingold said after the hearing.
Today, Hogan designated J.P. Morgan as the qualifying bank at the request of Cobell’s lawyers. The judge also authorized $20 million to launch a notice program in January to inform potential beneficiaries about the settlement. A fairness hearing is scheduled for next June.