NESPELEM Tribal members who have signed a petition seeking distribution of the remaining half of a $193 million federal court settlement will have to wait a while to find out their next step.
In an initial hearing at the Colville Confederated Courthouse last week, Chief Judge Cynthia Ann Jordan said “no decision will be issued quickly,” regarding a motion to dismiss the case by attorney Dana Cleveland, who is representing the defendant, the Colville Business Council.
Jordan said she hopes to have a decision within a month, which she will issue in writing.
Yvonne L. Swan and Shirley K. Charley spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs, 2,700 tribal members who had signed the petition seeking distribution of the remaining half of the $193 million federal court settlement.
Cleveland acknowledged that there are a lot of people who feel the same way as the plaintiffs.
There are 2,700 people who signed the petition and perhaps more than that believe the remainder of the $193 million should be distributed, he said. However, the business council must act in the best interest of the entire tribe, he said.
Cleveland said sovereign immunity, unless it has been waived, protected his clients from a lawsuit, and that the burden is on the plaintiffs to show specific injury.
Charley said the $193 million settlement with the federal government was proof in itself of specific injury.
She said the tribe, “would not have received one penny if the people weren’t being injured.”
The plaintiff argued that the business council can’t have sovereign immunity against its own membership, the people who have elected them.
“They (the business council) can’t hide behind sovereignty, they can’t silence our voice,” Swan said.
Swan attempted to disqualify Cleveland as the business council’s attorney, saying that Cleveland, as a tribal member, faced a conflict of interest because he has already received a share of the settlement and is an employee of the tribe.
Cleveland’s salary is paid for by tribal members, Swan said.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” Swan said.
Cleveland used the analogy of an attorney defending the federal government against a lawsuit from one of its citizens.
“The entity exists beyond the individuals,” he said.
Jordan ruled Cleveland was qualified to act as the business council’s attorney.
She said if Cleveland were arguing the other side, it might be a conflict of interest.
Swan attempted to file an injunction preventing the business council from spending any more of the remaining settlement money.
Jordan said she didn’t do “trial by ambush” — the injunction would have to be filed with appropriate time for Cleveland and his clients to respond.
Colville Business Council Chairman Michael O. Finley has said the trust settlement money will remain in the bank and accumulate interest.
Finley was not in attendance at the Aug. 21 initial hearing, and said he can’t comment further on the case.
The case stems from February 2012, when the business council announced it had approved one of the largest Indian trust mismanagement settlements in U.S. history.
The $193 million agreement settled the tribe’s claims against the U.S. government, filed in 2005, for an accounting of trust funds and mismanagement of tribal trust assets.