The Interior Department is doing all it can to account for billions of dollars owed to American Indian landholders, a department official told a federal court Wednesday in legal arguments over the Indians’ 11-year-old lawsuit against the government.
The suit claims the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from their lands dating back to 1887.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court, James Cason, associate deputy Interior secretary, defended the government’s accounting of the Indian trust lands. The department says it has spent more than $127 million on historical accounting of the trust lands since 2003 and is not delaying or trying to limit government liability, as the plaintiffs suggest.
But Cason said the department has a difficult job when Congress is appropriating limited funds for the accounting.
“There is only so much money we can get out of Congress to do this job,” he said. The government contends that the Interior Department has developed a reasonable process for accounting for the money owed and that the lawsuit should not go forward.
But lawyers for the Indians argued that the department is not properly accounting for the money owed to thousands of trustees.
“Hopefully, your honor, after 120 years some of our clients are going to see justice,” said Dennis Gingold, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.
Filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell, the lawsuit deals with individual Indians’ lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.
The government proposed paying $7 billion partly to settle the Cobell lawsuit in March, but that was rejected by the plaintiffs, who estimate the government’s liability could exceed $100 billion.
Judge James Robertson is presiding in the case after Judge Royce Lamberth was removed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which said he had lost his objectivity.
The government had asked that Lamberth be replaced after the judge lambasted the Interior Department, writing in a decision that it “is a dinosaur the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago.”
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