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Attorneys publish phone numbers, addresses of objectors to $3.4B Native American settlement
HELENA, Mont. (AP) ' Carol Good Bear started getting the calls about a week ago, after the attorneys who had negotiated a $3.4 billion settlement over misspent Native American land royalties published the phone numbers and addresses of the four people objecting to the deal.
At first, the resident of New Town, N.D., hung up on the angry voices at the other end. After 15 calls, she unplugged her home phone and started screening her cell phone calls.
She said she worries for her safety now that her address is in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who might blame her for holding up their money.
"To put my name out there for the public, I think that's scary that these attorneys would use this tactic and intimidate me into dropping my appeal," Good Bear said. "I don't have protection. If somebody is upset about all this and comes at me with a gun, what am I supposed to do?"
The attorneys who published the Jan. 20 open letter represent up to 500,000 plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit named after Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman from Montana who spent nearly 16 years trying to hold the U.S. government accountable for more than a century's worth of mismanaged Native American accounts.
The lawsuit claims U.S. officials stole or squandered billions of dollars in royalties owed for land leased for oil, gas, grazing and other uses.
Cobell died in October, just months after a federal judge approved the largest government class-action settlement in U.S. history.
Under the settlement, $1.4 billion would go to individual Native American account holders. Some $2 billion would be used by the government to buy up fractionated tribal lands from individual owners willing to sell, and then turn those lands over to tribes. Another $60 million would be used for a scholarship fund for young Natives.
The settlement took a year to push through Congress, then months for final judicial approval. After the settlement was approved, Good Bear and three other people filed separate objections, each for different reasons.
Those appeals must be heard by a federal appeals court before any money from the settlement can be distributed, with the first scheduled to be heard Feb. 16.
The plaintiffs' attorneys, led by Dennis Gingold of Washington, D.C., wrote in their letter that the "hopes and wishes of 500,000 individual Indians" had been delayed by those four people. If it wasn't for them, the first payments would have been made before Thanksgiving, the letter said.
"There is little doubt that they do not share the desires or care about the needs of the class, over 99.9 percent of whom support a prompt conclusion to this long-running, acrimonious case," the attorneys wrote.
The letter went on to list the names, phone numbers and addresses of Good Bear; Kimberly Craven of Boulder, Co.; Charles Colombe of Mission, S.D.; and Mary Lee Johns of Lincoln, Neb. The attorneys invited people to "ask them directly about their motives" and cautioned them to "please be civil in your communications."
The letter was published in the "Ask Elouise" email that updates class members on the settlement and also was published on at least one website dealing with Native American issues.
Gingold said Monday that he was preparing for oral arguments and could not comment on the letter.
Good Bear and Johns, who agreed to speak to The Associated Press, said they believe the letter was an attempt to intimidate them into dropping their appeals, but it will not work.
"Obviously they don't know me to think I could be brow-beaten into quitting," Johns said.
Both said they have received phone calls of support interspersed with the angry ones.
Craven and Colombe declined to comment, referring questions to their attorneys. Craven's attorney, Ted Frank, said in an email that he took his concerns to the plaintiffs' attorneys and they agreed to stop disseminating the letter.
Frank said he was satisfied with that promise and that attempting to have the judge address whether the letter was right or wrong would only distract from the appeal.
"Other than a corrective communication and sanctions, there isn't much else we could get in relief from the court, and neither is worth the distraction from preparation for oral argument," Frank said.
Each objector is appealing the settlement for his or her own reasons. Craven and Johns both say the settlement does not include an accounting for how much money was lost, which is what Cobell originally set out to accomplish, and that many class members did not understand that they could have opted out of the deal.
Johns and Good Bear both object to the class of landowners that the settlement creates, saying each is different and their claims should be assessed differently. Johns added that the tribes should have been involved in the process from the beginning, not just individuals.