A district judge in Washington, DC, said last week that the Department of Interior has failed to provide a workable plan to account for the oil and natural gas royalties that Native Americans claim they are owed, giving the plaintiffs a big win in an ongoing effort to recover trust monies.

U.S. Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sided with a group of American Indians in a 165-page ruling, Elouise Pepion Cobell, et al., v. Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior, et al., No. 96-1285. Robertson’s conclusions are the result of a 10-day bench trial in October 2007 to determine whether the Interior Department had remedied or was remedying “a breach of its duty” under the Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 to produce an accounting for individual Indian money (IIM) account holders.

The lawsuit claims that the Interior Department has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil and natural gas royalty revenue since 1887. A special master in the lawsuit resigned in 2004, citing repeated efforts by the Interior Department to disqualify him from the case to prevent damaging evidence from surfacing about agency mismanagement of trust monies for oil and gas and other activities on Indian lands (see NGI, April 12, 2004).

In his ruling Wednesday, Robertson noted that there were at least 3,504 entries on the Cobell v. Kempthorne docket. The plaintiffs, who number 300,000, were allowed trust funds through “land-based” IIM accounts that contain lease, royalty and land sale payments from a period between the late 1800s and 1934, when the U.S. government attempted to extinguish tribal sovereignty and assimilate Native Americans into society at large.

The Interior Department has argued that it has a workable plan to account for the plaintiffs’ oil and gas royalty payments. Robertson, who reviewed the thousands of pages of documents that had already gone through the court system, disagreed. The time has come, he wrote, “to bring this suit to a close.”

Within the next 30 days Robertson is scheduling a hearing to determine how the Interior Department should account for the royalties owed.

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