Reports are surfacing of problems being experienced by some Cobell class members who say that the federal government does not have the correct addresses to send their settlement checks.
Indian appeals of the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement concluded last month, so initial so-called stage 1 checks of $1,000 each for individual class members were supposed to be delivered by Christmas, government officials and Cobell lawyers have said. Stage 2 payments are supposed to go out at a later date.
But it has not been a smooth process for some of the thousands of class members.
“I was alarmed to learn today that the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] has sent 6 year-old address information to the Garden City, New Jersey court-appointed group that is responsible for disbursing the Cobell Indian trust settlement funds,” says Robin Kickingbird, a Kiowa citizen of Norman, Oklahoma.
“I never lived at the old address they had on file. This is my brother's address. I inherited my trust land from my father, who passed away in 2005.”
Kickingbird says that she has received mail concerning her Individual Indian Money account from the Kiowa Agency on a regular basis with no problem, and she regularly receives mail from the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians in Albuquerque; deposit notifications from the Office of Trust Funds Management; and she has received correspondence from the Anadarko Area Office and Office of Hearings and Appeals all without issue over the last 6 years.
“I don't know how on earth the BIA managed to pull this one address where I never lived to give to the Garden City group,” Kickingbird says, adding that she hopes she has gotten the problem sorted out so that her check will be correctly delivered soon.
There is a larger problem here that Kickingbird finds problematic beyond her own case: “It is just so ironic that BIA is bungling a payment for a lawsuit that was about their bungling and mismanagement.”
Beyond Kickingbird, other Indian class members have said they sent in notarized letters stating their current addresses, but their checks have still reportedly been sent to wrong addresses. Still others have been told they do not have accounts, despite paperwork of their own that indicates otherwise.
To work on solving such problems, Kickingbird suggests that all Indians who are concerned about Cobell payments to directly call the Garden City Group at 1-800-961-6109 toll free, or e-mail info@IndianTrust.com, to be sure that their correct addresses are listed and that the money is being sent to the correct addresses.
Kickingbird and other Cobell class members also hope this situation is not indicative of larger administrative problems, but some think it is not a coincidence that on December 11, Cobell lawyers petitioned the overseeing court for a special master to oversee the payment process.
In the U.S. legal system special masters are sometimes appointed to make sure that certain court orders are followed.
The National Congress of American Indians says it learned that the special master was requested “to oversee the distribution of the funds with a focus on efforts to locate all eligible beneficiaries,” according to a recent press release from the organization.
On December 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed that a special master was necessary, with Judge Thomas Hogan appointing Judge Richard A. Levie to the position.
According to court papers, Levie will be responsible for considering and approving Stage 1 payment requests, ruling over deceased class members’ claims, and sorting out address issues and appeals.
NCAI is also raising separate concerns about the payments, and has released a public service announcement in order to increase awareness about the possibility of fraud and scams targeting Cobell class members.
“This settlement can benefit you, your family and your communities, but we must all be aware of the potential negative impacts. You or others may be a target for scams,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel says in the ads being distributed to Native American radio stations. “Dishonest people know about the settlement and are figuring ways to take money from you. Be aware and be watchful. If you suspect a scam, you can contact your State’s Attorney General Office of Consumer Protection or your tribe.”
According to NCAI, there are several ways class members could be targeted: “Individuals in these circumstances usually get mail, phone calls, and e-mail with ideas for how to spend the money. For example, individuals or their family might get offers for new or used vehicles, credit card or loan offers, rent-to-own ‘deals,’ or an advance on the money.”
NCAI “is encouraging individuals to determine how to save or spend their money, and to be wary of scams that encourage people to ‘Act Now!,’ make big promises, offer no risk, or tell people to ‘keep it secret’ referring to the offer,” says an NCAI press release, which adds, “the best way to protect Native money is to make a plan, ‘take your time’ when deciding how to spend the money, ask questions, and talk to someone you trust.”
NCAI directs anyone who has questions about payments to contact the claims administrator, Garden City Group, Inc., directly.