WASHINGTON — A federal judge Monday approved the $3.4 billion settlement between the U.S. government and Indians who sued 15 years ago over mismanagement of their trust accounts — the largest class-action settlement in history against the United States.
Barring an appeal, nearly half a million Indians — including an estimated 50,000 in Oklahoma — could begin receiving $1,000 checks within three to four months, according to one of the attorneys for the Indians.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan's approval of the settlement came after a daylong hearing in a packed courtroom, in which he listened to about a dozen opponents of the settlement.
“The process has gone on long enough,” Hogan said, after summing up the bitter legal struggles between the government and Indians since the case was filed here in 1996.
On one of the controversial issues surrounding the settlement, Hogan awarded $99 million in legal fees to the Indians' attorneys.
The amount was less than the $223 million the attorneys said they could be entitled to, but almost twice as much as the Obama administration wanted paid to the opposing legal team.
Some members of Congress and the National Congress of American Indians also wanted the fees capped at $50 million.
Hogan also awarded $2 million to Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case, who has been present at most of the trials and other major events in the historic case, including hearings on Capitol Hill. Hogan said Cobell had accomplished more for American Indians “than anyone I can think of in recent history.”
Cobell, who has been ill and wasn't able to attend the hearing on Monday, spoke to the judge on a speaker phone from her home in Montana, saying the settlement was supported by a vast majority of account holders.
“The terms of settlement bring a measure of justice to some of the most vulnerable people in this country,” she said. “The settlement isn't perfect. I do not think it compensates for all the losses sustained, but I do think it is fair and reasonable.”
Congress approved the settlement late last year, and it was signed by President Barack Obama, whose administration jump-started negotiations when it appeared the case could go on for several more years.