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Tribes Seek Help on Legal Fee Payout

Tom Williams/Roll Call
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.

"Under previous Republican Chairman, this Committee injected itself into court proceedings. ... The end result of these intrusions was, at best, to create the appearance of political gamesmanship in the judicial process and, at worst, to actually tip the scales of justice," the Massachusetts Democrat wrote in a letter to Hastings. "The secret and unilateral nature of these subpoenas raises the specter of a return to these unfortunate practices."

Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for Markey, said the attempt to limit attorney's fees in the Cobell case was just one example of that.

Republicans have also introduced legislation to give farmers in California's San Joaquin River Delta more access to water, potentially undermining restoration efforts there under a 2006 settlement.

"This is now sort of a continuation of a pattern in the Natural Resources Committee where, if a legal settlement has been reached, the Republicans on the committee overreach and try to upend the previously existing agreement," Burnham-Snyder said.

The Cobell case lawyers also alleged the Republicans have ulterior motives.

"Hastings is no friend of Indian Country, and he's been trying to kill the settlement since we announced it in 2009," Geoffrey Rempel, an accountant with the litigation team, said in an interview.

Pederson called such allegations "ridiculous" and said the bill, which is still in committee, would not kill the settlement.

"It's appropriate for Congress to intervene because the reason this settlement exists is because Congress passed it," Pederson said in an interview.

Rempel said the lawyers have backed down from their initial request for $223 million ­ about 15 percent of the $1.5 billion to be dispersed to members of the class action lawsuit in the hopes of resolving the matter.

Of the remaining settlement money, $1.9 billion is expected to fund an Interior Department program to purchase land benefiting tribal communities, and $60 million will fund scholarships for American Indian youth.

Even though tribal leaders argue the attorney compensation unfairly cuts into their share, Rempel said individual plaintiffs are on his side.

"We represent individuals that have been largely disenfranchised by tribal organizations over the past 100 years," Rempel said. "My clients have no love of tribes and frequently find themselves on the other sides of the tribes."

Last week's resolution by tribal leaders called into question the numbers of hours the lawyers billed, whether fees had been inflated and "extravagant dining and hotel expenses."

A fairness hearing began Monday to determine, among other matters, how much the lawyers should get paid.

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