Rep. Don Young is backing a coalition of tribes who want to cap a legal payout to their attorneys at $50 million. The Alaska Republican finds the fees absurd, a spokesman said.
After suing federal officials and winning billions of dollars, American Indian tribal leaders are seeking the government's help against lawyers on their own side.
The National Congress of American Indians adopted a resolution last week backing a bill to cap attorney compensation at $50 million in a $3.4 billion settlement over land and trust asset mismanagement by the federal government.
The legislation could change the terms of a settlement between the federal government and American Indians over a dispute that began 15 years ago. Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, led a group of American Indians in filing suit in 1996 against the departments of Interior and Treasury after she noticed discrepancies in the way officials had recorded assets and land belonging to the tribes.
The class action lawsuit grew to include 500,000 plaintiffs before the government agreed to pay a $3.4 billion settlement in 2009. President Barack Obama signed a bill into law in December to approve that amount, including $50 million to $99.9 million in attorney's fees. The plaintiffs' lawyers then petitioned for $223 million in compensation, saying an agreement with the plaintiffs had entitled them to that much.
Two prominent Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee took up the cause against the lawyers on behalf of tribal leaders. Chairman Doc Hastings (Wash.) and Rep. Don Young (Alaska) filed a bill to cap the lawyers' take at $50 million. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians have passed a resolution supporting the bill.
The lawyers have since said they will accept $99.9 million, the limit from the original settlement. But the lawmakers and tribes continue to push for $50 million, saying the rest of the money should go to the individual plaintiffs.
"My number one concern has always been the fair treatment of the 500,000 individuals in Indian Country and ensuring that they — not trial lawyers — receive the money they deserve," Hastings said in a statement.
Last month, Hastings also subpoenaed two lawyers on the case, Keith Harper and Dennis Gingold, requesting information about their fee arrangements and billing. A spokesman for Hastings said the lawmaker did so only after the attorneys refused to hand over the information.
"It's probably hard to find a bigger proponent of Native rights in Congress than Don Young. He and Chairman Hastings are doing this so that the settlement class gets what they were promised and their money isn't going towards these absurd lawyer fees," Hastings spokesman Spencer Pederson said.
But Democrats questioned Hastings' intentions. In a strongly worded letter against the subpoenas, Natural Resources ranking member Ed Markey said Congressional interference in the judicial matter could undermine the settlement, which has not been finalized, and could force the tribes to return to court.