This post has been corrected.
The lead plaintiff in a long-running class action suit criticized Congress Wednesday for its slow pace in approving a proposed settlement of the case.
Appearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Elouise Cobell, the named plaintiff in the suit filed in 1996 on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indians, expressed frustration at how long it has taken congressional leaders to consider the legislation necessary to OK the settlement.
“I thought that all we had to do was come and talk to Congress because they had so many years and they knew about this, and it’s almost like sometimes Congress acts oblivious to all the issues that we talked about,” Cobell said.
Early last December, the government and the plaintiffs reached a $1.4 billion settlement in Cobell v. Salazar. The lawsuit, which is one of the largest class action suits against the government in U.S. history, alleged that the Interior Department mishandled thousands of individual Indian trust fund accounts over more than a century.
The settlement requires congressional approval, however. The original terms gave lawmakers a Dec. 31, 2009, deadline to finish the necessary legislation. That deadline has been extended twice and is now set to expire on April 16.
Aides on Capitol Hill questioned the short deadlines given the time it often takes Congress to pass legislation. A person familiar with the temporary settlement arrangement said that the judge who handled the case — District Judge James Robertson — dictated the legislative deadline.
But critics of the settlement, some of whom appeared before the committee on Wednesday, said they want more time to find out how account holders would benefit under the proposed settlement. The critics said there has not been enough transparency and criticized the communication with Native American leaders.
Representatives from the Justice Department and the Department of the Interior shot back at the suggestion they have not reached out to Native Americans, pointing out that they were on a conference call with tribal leaders the day the settlement was announced.
The department officials also said they plan to begin a massive public relations campaign once Congress approves the legislation. Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes told the panel that it would have been presumptuous to educate the public about the details of the settlement before Congress has given its approval.
Cobell said she was frustrated by the “misinformation regarding the settlement conveyed by a very small number of individuals, many of whom are not beneficiaries and do not speak for individual Indian beneficiaries.”
But the concerns aren’t just about communicating the latest information to all involved parties. Richard Monette, former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, testified that the proposed Cobell settlement would be a “breach of trust.”
And Michael Finley, who chairs the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association on Indian Trust Funds, told lawmakers that many of those he spoke with had problems with the size of attorneys fees arising from the settlement.
Under the terms of the proposed agreement, lawyers could receive between $50 to $100 million, plus payment of up to $12 million for work performed after the settlement.
Government officials said that the caps on attorneys fees are very low compared to other class-action suits.
Finley also cited the first deadline — Dec. 31, only weeks after the settlement was announced — as raising suspicions about what was contained in the agreement. “No one understood the reason for the very short time frame and it made people very wary of what was actually being proposed,” Finley said.
He also said that it was not possible for many people affected by the settlement to go to a Web site to get answers to their question, when many of them “have no electricity in their homes and limited access in their communities.”
Another witness, Austin Nunez, representing the Indian Land Working Group, said the organization’s board of directors had endorsed the legislation, despite concerns about some of the details of the settlement,.
The Next Steps
All the witnesses promised lawmakers they would respond to their questions and concerns within two weeks.
Recently the Obama administration began circulating a draft of legislation in the House and is working with leadership in that chamber to move it forward.
According to Senate aides, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is trying to find the right bill to which he can attach the language approving the settlement, in an effort to speed the legislative process in the Senate.
If Congress does not act, or if there are any changes to the proposed legislation, the settlement agreement will become null and void.
Although they raised some concerns about the proposed legislation, both Natural Resources panel Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and the committee’s top Republican, Doc Hastings of Washington, indicated they shared the Justice Department’s goal of closing the matter.
Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli said that he hoped that both congressional authorization and final approval from the court would happen quickly.
Throughout the negotiations, government lawyers were guided by two principles, Perrelli said.
“First, we wanted true peace for the parties, he said. “We wanted to turn the page on history. The resolution of the accounting and trust administration pieces of this litigation will do that. And second, we wanted to put Interior on a new path for the future, and to give it tools to address some of the underlying conditions that have contributed to its challenges. The land consolidation program will do that.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the amount of the settlement agreement. It is $1.4 billion.
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North Dakota’s Democratic National Committeeman stepped down from his post on Feb. 4 — the same day he was nominated to be his state’s U.S. Attorney, Northdecoder.com, a North Dakota political blog, reported last week.
U.S. Attorney nominee Tim Purdon has received criticism for his strong political ties and his lack of prosecutorial experience. Purdon, a lawyer at Vogel Law Firm in Bismarck, N.D., has donated almost $12,400 to North Dakota Democrats and national politicians and committees since 2000, including $2,300 to President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, we reported last week. Read his full bio here.
“When President Obama said he wanted to restore the independence and dignity of the U.S. attorney’s office, in light of the Alberto Gonzales fiasco, and then appoints a political activist and party fundraiser, it seems a little to me more like ‘politics as usual’ than ‘change we can believe in’,” Bill Brudvik, who had been a candidate for the job, told the Fargo Forum.
Purdon declined to comment to Main Justice. Spokespersons for the DNC as well as North Dakota’s two Democratic senators - Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan - didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
But the North Dakota congressional delegation — which includes Conrad, Dorgan and at large Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) — said in a joint statement last week that Purdon was an “outstanding choice.”
“He is well respected and an example of how dedication, education, and hard work pay off. He has a distinguished record and has proven his ability to enforce the law with conviction and courage,” the congressional delegation said in the statement. “We are confident he will make a fine U.S. Attorney, upholding the Constitution and protecting all North Dakotans.”
It isn’t unusual for U.S. Attorney nominees to be closely involved with party politics before they are tapped and some have had little — if any — prosecutorial experience. Many Obama U.S. Attorney nominees donated to Democrats in 2008 and some played roles on Democratic campaigns. A few were never prosecutors before they became U.S. Attorneys.
Purdon would replace Lynn C. Jordheim, who has been North Dakota’s acting U.S. Attorney since the Sept. 13 resignation of Drew Wrigley. Wrigley, who had been the district’s head prosecutor since November 2001, is now the vice president of the Fargo, N.D.,-based Noridian Administrative Services, which helps businesses with information management and customer service.
Some of the reported candidates for the U.S. Attorney post included:
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President Obama today announced his intention to nominate Bismarck attorney Timothy Purdon to be U.S. Attorney for North Dakota.
Purdon is with the Vogel Law Firm in Bismarck. He also serves as the state’s Democratic National Committeeman. Read Purdon’s bio here.
Purdon has donated nearly $12,400 to North Dakota Democrats and national politicians and committees since 2000, including $2300 to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a North Dakota news Web site reported, citing Federal Election Commission records.
North Dakota’s retiring junior senator, Democrat Byron Dorgan, had repeatedly complained about the slow pace of the nominating process.
“I understand that nominations are tough sometimes. It requires vetting. They don’t get done as soon as they should – I understand all that,” Dorgan told Inforum, a news Web site based in Fargo, last year. “It just seems to me that the U.S. attorney’s position is a very important position, and we had expected this to be completed long before now.”
If confirmed, Purdon will replace Lynn C. Jordheim, who has been North Dakota’s acting U.S. Attorney since Sept. 13, following the resignation of Drew Wrigley, who had been the district’s head prosecutor since November 2001. Wrigley is now the vice president of the Fargo-based Noridian Administrative Services, which helps businesses with information management and customer service.
Among the others who were reportedly considered for the U.S. Attorney nomination:
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Drew Wrigley, who served as North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney from 2001 until September 2009, has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who yesterday announced that he will not seek reelection, The Forum of North Dakota reports. After resigning late last year, Wrigley became the vice president of Fargo-based Noridian Administrative Services, which helps businesses with information management and customer service.
Wrigley on Tuesday said, “I didn’t expect at that time that leaving there would be the last chapter,” The Forum reports. He added that his decision will not be based on the other possible candidates. “I equate the opportunity not with who is or isn’t running, but whether I can make the most difference for the people of North Dakota,” Wrigley said.
In a written statement, Dorgan said, “Although I still have a passion for public service and enjoy my work in the Senate, I have other interests and I have other things outside of public life,” adding there is a possibility of teaching or working on energy policy in the private sector. However, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Dorgan might be on the short list for a place in President Obama’s cabinet, The Forum reports. Conrad in a statement said, “I have a feeling that this will not be the last of his public service.”
Other possible candidates for the Democratic nomination are Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) and former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, The Forum reports.
In addition, Gov. John Hoeven (R) had been eyeing the seat before Dorgan made his announcement. On Tuesday he said, “We have been looking very seriously at the Senate race for some time. People are well aware of that,” adding “I expect we’ll have an announcement of our intentions within a couple weeks,” The Forum reports.
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Add Sen. Mary Landrieu to the list of senators frustrated with the administration’s ambling pace on U.S. Attorney nominations.
The Louisiana Democrat’s office is seeking clarification from the White House on U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s status, nearly a year after President Barack Obama took office and eight months after Landrieu announced she wanted to keep the Republican-appointed prosecutor in place, reports The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Earlier this month, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) also complained - for a second time - about lack of action on the North Dakota U.S. Attorney post.
The Obama administration has nominated or confirmed 42 U.S. Attorneys. By comparison, George W. Bush had nominated more than 60 U.S. Attorneys and Bill Clinton more than 70 by this point in their administrations.
The White House told Landrieu aides that Letten’s position is safe, the Times-Picayune reported on its blog:
Recently, Landrieu aides said they were told by the White House that Letten’s job is secure and that it’s unnecessary for the president to renominate him or the Senate to confirm him because he already holds the position.
“Jim Letten continues to serve as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana without being re-nominated by the President,” Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in a statement to the newspaper.
In a blog posting, reporter Bruce Alpert said it was “unclear” what Schwartz meant and tried to provide an exegesis for readers.
“One possible explanation is that Landrieu staffers have been given misleading information and that the White House is considering replacing Letten,” Alpert wrote. Although Letten is a career prosecutor and not considered especially political, some Democrats in New Orleans are grumbling that “there are many qualified people not associated with the previous Republican administration who could do the job as effectively.”
The senator’s office said in a statement: ”Sen. Landrieu continues to stand behind Mr. Letten and is pleased that he continues to serve in the capacity of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District.”
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Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) “remains frustrated” that President Barack Obama has yet to nominate a U.S. Attorney for the state, The Forum of Fargo, N.D., reports. “I don’t understand it. That U.S. Attorney position should have been filled,” the senator told the newspaper Thursday.
Lynn C. Jordheim has been North Dakota’s acting U.S. Attorney since Sept. 13, following the resignation of Drew Wrigley, who had been the district’s head prosecutor since November 2001. Wright was nominated by President George W. Bush. He is now the vice president of the Fargo-based Noridian Administrative Services, which helps businesses with information management and customer service.
Among the names being considered for the position are:
- Tim Purdon, an attorney at Vogel Law Firm in Bismarck, N.D.
- Jasper Schneider, a state representative and Fargo, N.D.
- Bill Brudvik, a partner at Ohnstad Twichell Law Firm in Mayville, N.D., and candidate for state attorney general
- Janice Morley, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Fargo, N.D.
- Rebecca Thiem, an attorney with Zuger Kirmis & Smith in Bismarck, N.D
Dorgan previously has expressed concerns about the slow vetting process. He told The Forum that he has spoke with the White House about his concerns but would not disclose details of those talks. “I understand that nominations are tough sometimes. It requires vetting. They don’t get done as soon as they should – I understand all that,” he told the newspaper. “It just seems to me that the U.S. attorney’s position is a very important position, and we had expected this to be completed long before now.”
According to The Forum, White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage previously has refused to comment on the nomination process until an official announcement is made.
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Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told a local radio station he is frustrated that President Obama has yet to nominate a for U.S. Attorney for North Dakota.
Dorgan said he knows who will be nominated but declined to identify the nominee, because that’s the White House’s job, WDAY Radio News reported.
“I think the White House is largely settled on who they want to nominate,” Dorgan told the radio station. “They are now in the process of doing what is called the vetting, and that is taking longer than one would expect. I assume they are doing that in a lot of cases, and we are not the only ones I think that are frustrated by that. There are many other areas around the country in which nominations are expected but not forthcoming.”
The North Dakota congressional delegation reportedly recommended several candidates to Obama, including Jasper Schneider and Janice Morley. Schneider is a member of the North Dakota state legislature and a lawyer at Fargo’s Schneider Law Firm. Morley is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the North Dakota office.
Lynn Jordheim has been North Dakota’s acting U.S. Attorney Sept. 13 following the resignation of Drew Wrigley, who had been the district’s head prosecutor since November 2001, when he was nominated by President George W. Bush. He is currently the vice president of the Fargo-based Noridian Administrative Services, which helps businesses with information management and customer service.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn C. Jordheim on Sunday became acting U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, Fargo newspaper Inforum reported today. U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley resigned last Friday. Wrigley had served as the district’s head prosecutor since November 2001, when he was nominated by President George W. Bush, The Associated Press reported.
Last week, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he expects President Obama to nominate a U.S. Attorney for the district soon, the Fargo newspaper said. As we previously reported, the North Dakota congressional delegation has recommended several candidates to Obama including Jasper Schneider and Janice Morley.
Schneider is a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives and a lawyer at Fargo’s Schneider Law Firm. Morley is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the North Dakota office.
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The Justice Department supports the creation of a permanent DOJ Office of Tribal Justice with a presidentially-appointed head, according to a DOJ spokesperson.
The Office of Tribal Justice was created under a federal statute in 1995, but exists at the discretion of the Attorney General. OTJ serves as the DOJ’s point of contact with Indian tribes on tribal justice issues. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is considering legislation that would make OTJ a permanent division within the Justice Department.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said in a statement submitted to the panel yesterday that the Justice Department supports the creation of a permanent OTJ – like the Office of Legal Counsel – but not the establishment of a permanent tribal justice division – like the Civil Rights Division. He said the OTJ would work better as a permanent office because divisions are “generally large litigating components” of the Justice Department.
“The Office facilitates coordination between Departmental components working on Indian issues, and provides a constant channel of communication for Indian tribal governments with the Department,” Perrelli said. “The Department agrees that it is time to recognize OTJ as a critical and permanent entity within DOJ.”
This is only the latest in a series of efforts by the Justice Department to reach out to Indian tribes. The Justice Department is already doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to tribal justice programs through grants and the Recovery Act, including $225 million for tribal correctional facilities. Last week, Perrelli said Attorney General Eric Holder will hold the Tribal Nations Listening Conference later in the year to help address the concerns of tribal leaders. Perrelli and Deputy Attorney General David Ogden also plan to hold smaller meetings with Indian tribes.
This new emphasis on tribal affairs by the DOJ has delighted members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Senate Indian Affairs Chair Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he was shocked when he read a Washington Post article that noted DOJ’s emphasis on tribal issues.
“I almost swallowed by Grape Nuts whole from my cereal,” Dorgan said.
But not all senators are happy with how the Justice Department is handling crime in Indian country.
Republican Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett criticized Justice Department for the force it used during a high-profile raid earlier this month on people who allegedly took Indian artifacts from tribal lands in Utah. Hatch said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Holder last week that the use of more than a 100 armed agents to arrest a dozen alleged perpetrators for non-violent crimes was “unnecessary and brutal.” Two of the alleged thieves committed suicide following the raid.
Holder defended the actions of the Justice Department during the hearing last week. He said the DOJ agents used the “appropriate amount of force” in the raid.
“The arrests that were done were felony arrests,” Holder said.
Hatch said the raid was a “dog and pony show.” The Justice Department issued a big news release and held a June 10 press conference in Utah with Ogden, Utah U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
“I am questioning the motives of some of the higher-ups at Justice and at Interior,” Hatch said.