Leftover Indian farmer settlement money plan left alone

Associated Press

A federal appeals court will not reconsider a plan that would distribute $300 million left over from a legal settlement involving the federal government to groups that help American Indians, even though the government's attorneys say the plan is "regrettable" and wouldn't have been approved under a Trump administration policy change.

One of the two men who objected to the arrangement said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and attorneys for the second man said they're considering it.

The money is left over from a $680 million fund approved by President Barack Obama's administration in 2011 to settle claims by Native American farmers who said they were denied loans for decades because of government discrimination. Only about half of the 10,000 expected claims materialized.

In April 2016, a judge approved a plan for the remaining money that included an additional $21,275 for each claimant and about $300 million for groups that help Indians. Claimants Donivon Tingle and Keith Mandan appealed, arguing that all of the money should go to individual claimants.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May voted 2-1 to uphold the plan, and a request by Tingle and Mandan for a rehearing before the full appeals court was denied Sept. 20.

Between those two decisions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June banned the Justice Department from being part of settlements that provide for payments to third parties with no direct claims. In a statement June 7 he criticized the Obama administration and said settlement funds should not go "to bankroll third-party special interest groups or the political friends of whoever is in power."

Tingle, who is an attorney, noted that policy change in arguments for a rehearing, saying in court documents that the government has "placed its seal of approval upon that course correction."

"The funds have not been paid out. Those funds can be recaptured and redirected at the stroke of a pen," Tingle wrote.

Mandan's attorney, William A. Sherman, also noted the new policy in a statement to The Associated Press and said "without a doubt the undistributed money should be used to compensate the prevailing claimants."

Justice Department attorneys in court documents successfully argued against a rehearing but also acknowledged that "the department now views this settlement as regrettable."

"If this settlement were proposed to the department today, it would not be approved, and as noted, the department has now taken steps to ensure that a settlement of this nature will not occur again," the attorneys wrote, adding that Sessions' mandate deals with settlements "going forward."

Tingle said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Sherman said he's considering it.

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