The U.S. Senate is poised to vote soon on a jobs-and-tax package that would also authorize a settlement in long-running litigation over American Indian trust accounts. Still to be decided: what the cap will be for attorneys fees in that case.
Lawyers in the case, named for lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, agreed to cap fees at $100 million. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is proposing to set the cap at $50 million, and he introduced an amendment (PDF) this week to do so.
Senators could vote on the amendment as soon as next week, or they might not consider it at all. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said today that no agreement has been reached.
In a statement, Barrasso said his amendment would benefit the plaintiffs, who lost royalty funds they were entitled to from the use of natural resources on Indian land. “After hearing from both sides to the lawsuit and Indian country, I believe the agreement can be strengthened in a way that benefits individuals, Indian Country, and taxpayers,” he said.
Cobell, of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, supports the $100 million cap. No plaintiffs have opposed that cap in court. Representing the plaintiffs are D.C. solo practitioner Dennis Gingold and a team from Kilpatrick Stockton.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have written to senators in opposition to the Barrasso amendment, saying it would threaten the entire settlement. They note that the case has stretched on for 14 years, involving hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs.
“The nature of any settlement agreement is that no one gets everything they asked for,” they wrote in letters (PDF) dated June 9. “In the lead-up to the agreement, issues were resolved through difficult, arm’s length negotiations, and the parties contemplated that the legislation would be passed as proposed.”
The settlement, signed in December but requiring congressional authorization, includes $1.41 billion in payouts. Legislation would also authorize $2 billion in land transactions.
Barrasso, in his statement, said that the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the government “have the power to accept the changes on behalf of all the individuals who will be impacted by the settlement. They should do so.”
The House approved its version of the jobs-and-tax package May 28.