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Expectations lowered in Indian trust suit

Washington_A federal judge indicated Wednesday that American Indians who have filed a lawsuit against the government for mismanagement of trust funds may not be awarded the $47 billion they have said they are owed.

The 12-year-old lawsuit -- filed on behalf of a half-million American Indians and their heirs -- claims they were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. They say the government has profited from money that should have gone promptly into individual Indian accounts, and claim they are owed tens of billions of dollars in restitution. At the close of the latest two-week trial in the case, U.S. District Judge James Robertson suggested the amount owed to the plaintiffs is probably less than $10 billion, noting that the final amount will have to be based on estimates. He said he expects to issue a decision in August.

At issue is how much of the royalty money was withheld from the Indian plaintiffs over the years, and whether it was held in the U.S. treasury at a benefit to the government. Because many of the records have been lost or destroyed, it is now up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much the individual Indians -- many of whom are nearing the end of their lives -- should be paid.

"There is very little hard data on which to base an award that covers 120 years," Robertson said of the trial.

During the course of the trial, plaintiffs reduced the amount they said they were owed based on documents that became available in the proceedings. Their estimate going into the trial was $58 billion, down from their original estimates of $100 billion.

"The amount is high but the years have been many," said William Dorris, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who presented closing arguments Wednesday.

The government has contended that if any money is owed, it should be less than $1 billion.

Robertson called the trial to determine how much the government should pay the Indians. He ruled earlier this year that efforts by the Interior Department to account for the trust money were inadequate.

Much of the trial focused on detailed analyses of historical records as both sides attempted to prove that their estimates are accurate.

The Indian plaintiffs called several budget experts -- including Jim Miller, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan -- to try and prove that the government profited from the trust money over the years. Government witnesses disputed that testimony, saying the amount was grossly exaggerated.

If a dollar amount were awarded, it is uncertain how the government would pay it.

Congress may have to set the money aside, a tough sell in tight time. The Indian plaintiffs argue that the money could paid directly and does not require action by Congress.

Filed by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., the lawsuit deals with individual Indians' lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

Copyright 2008 by the Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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