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Feds near approval of $554 million settlement of Navajo trust lawsuit

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WASHINGTON – The federal government is nearing final approval of a $554 million settlement with the Navajo Nation of the tribe’s claim that the government mishandled royalties on tribal mineral resource contracts for decades.

The Navajo Nation Council voted 13-3 to approve the deal Friday, when it was signed by President Ben Shelly and sent to Washington for final approval from the departments of Justice, Interior and Treasury.

An attorney representing the Navajo called the settlement the largest by the government with an individual tribe of about 100 such claims that have been made. Andrew L. Sandler said the Navajo deal is about $170 million more than the next-largest settlement in a dispute over royalties.

Officials could not say when the federal agencies might sign off on the deal, but noted that the government has to pay within 120 days.

The lawsuit, first filed in 2006, sought $900 million in damages from the federal government for its mismanagement of royalties from oil, gas, coal, uranium and other mineral leases it held in trust for the tribe. The suit claimed that the mishandling of funds stretched back to the 1940s.

Council Delegate Dwight Witherspoon, one of the three votes against the settlement Friday, said he likes the deal and is in favor of ending the litigation. But he was dissatisfied with the way the vote bypassed regular legislative procedures, being rushed through without the normal five-day comment period, for example.

“It was brought forth as an emergency legislation and didn’t provide opportunity for the people to get informed before the council voted,” Witherspoon said.

But the majority of the council worried that delaying a vote and opening the measure up for public discussion would just drag the issue out, he said.

In a statement released by the Speaker’s office after the vote, council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd welcomed the deal.

“I am pleased with the awarded amount and it demonstrates our Nation’s sovereignty as we were in the driver’s seat throughout the negotiations,” Shepherd’s statement said.

Once approved, money from the deal would go to the Navajo Nation’s general fund.

From there, some council members have suggested using it for infrastructure improvements on Navajo lands. Shelly said in a prepared statement that the money should be used for housing, infrastructure and accessibility “for our disabled Navajo citizens.”

But tribe spokesman Jared Touchin said no final decision has been made, and a council resolution would determine where funds are spent.

“It will probably go through another round of council discussions, but no current resolutions support that it will be used for infrastructure,” Touchin said.

Sandler said the council and Trust Mismanagement Litigation Task Force welcomed the settlement.

“This is a tremendous result for Navajo people,” he said. “There are many needs on the reservation and this provides over $500 million to be able to deal with all those needs.”