The Office of the Special Trust for American Indians offices in North Dakota and across the country have been inundated with phone calls and walk-ins since a court approved the first payments from the $3.4 billion Indian trust settlement.
People calling or personally visiting the offices have questions or want to update or make sure their contact information is correct, said an OST official.
"They have to divert attention from all their regular duties," said Debby Pafel, a spokeswoman for OST in Washington, D.C. She said those offices are getting many calls and walk-ins because people have a great deal of interest in updating their information.
She said people with questions also have been contacting the Bureau of Indian Affairs, their congressional members and OST in Washington, D.C.
Who to contact
Both Pafel and David Smith, an attorney with Kilpatrick Townsend, the Washington, D.C., attorney representing the plaintiffs, encourage people who wish to update their contact information or who have questions about the trust settlement to visit the Cobell website at (www.cobellsettlement.com) or call its toll-free number at 1-800-961-6109.
Questions can also be emailed to Info@IndianTrust.com or the mailing address is: Indian Trust Settlement, P.O. Box 9577, Dublin, Ohio 43017-4877.
Smith said another option is for people to call the law firm at 866-383-6554, a number dedicated to the class members.
The Office of the Special Trust for American Indians, established by a federal act in 1994, was created to improve the accountability and management of Indian funds held in trust by the federal government.
OST has more than 50 fiduciary trust officer positions. The fiduciary trust officers serve as the primary points of contact for Indian beneficiary inquiries and work closely with BIA personnel. They are located with or near many BIA agencies or field offices.
In North Dakota, there are OST offices at Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain, Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations.
"The 50 fiduciary trust officers and staff are doing incredible work," Pafel said.
The historic Cobell lawsuit (Cobell v. Salazar) was filed in 1996 by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell against the U.S. Department of Interior for mishandling of Indian trust funds and accounts.
Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, did not live to see the settlement checks from the lawsuit being issued. She died in October 2011.
The first checks of $1,000 each from the settlement were sent in mid-December to nearly 264,000 people in the Historical Accounting Class. Members of another class, the Trust Administration Class, will be paid later.
Smith said 75 percent of the recipients' addresses were correct in this first stage of payments. He said they were pleased that many addresses were correct.
Unfortunately, he said some of the addresses were old addresses and through various means, as he mentioned previously, they are trying to locate the current addresses.
"We knew how bad Interior (Department) records were," Smith said, noting the case involved 16 years of litigation.
Based on U.S. Department of Interior records, almost 40,000 Historical Accounting Class members are shown as "whereabouts unknown." The awards for these class members have been deposited in their Individual Indian Money, also known as IIM, accounts and they only need to update their contact information to be able to claim their award, according to the website. Another 10,000 class members have no contact information in the records furnished by Interior.
Smith said the Garden City Group Inc., the court-appointed claims administrator handling the distribution of the payments, has had a high volume of calls 50,000 to 60,000 calls a day from beneficiaries.
Pafel said that locating IIM account holders is an international effort because they live all over the United States, in Canada and other countries. She said the account holders also are a full range of ages from minors to elders. She also noted people who were adopted and eligible for payment may not have their up-to-date addresses listed.
"We want to get our WAU (whereabouts unknown accounts) to zero," Pafel said. As of the end of December, she said there were slightly more than 83,000 WAUs with more than $110 million in those accounts.
In past years, there were more than 100,000 WAUs but that number has come down, she said. She said people now are getting in touch and updating their information.
"We're all working together OST, the Garden City group...," Pafel said. She said they hope the information they gather and the lessons learned will make for a better and more efficient stage two payment.
The second stage is the Trust Administration Class payment that will be done at a later date. The minimum amounts of the second payments will be about $800 but some people will receive more based on the activity of their IIM account. Beneficiaries of this class payment should file a claim that must be postmarked by March 1, according to the Cobell settlement website. Those currently receiving IIM account statements do not need to file a claim form.