More than $380 million in government funds left over from a federal discrimination settlement with Native American farmers remains in limbo amid disagreements over whether a new foundation should be created to disburse the money, the Associated Press reports.
The funds became available after only about half of the ten thousand people expected to file claims as part of a class-action suit filed in 2011 by Native American farmers who said they had lost out on decades of farm loans because of discrimination actually did so. While the settlement agreement called for any remaining money to be distributed equally among Native American charities, Joseph Sellers, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the AP that a group of lawyers have proposed that a single large foundation headed by Native leaders be established to re-grant the funds to smaller organizations. Sellers himself has argued that setting up a large fund to award annual grants to smaller charities, as opposed to dispersing the funds all at once, would create more impact over the long term.
Native American groups, including the lead plaintiffs, split with their lawyers and opposed the plan to create a foundation, however, saying the money should be distributed to claimants, spread out among existing charities as originally intended, or exposed to a new round of claims. At a court hearing earlier this week, lead plaintiff Marilyn Keepseagle asked U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to distribute the remainder of the funds to claimants, arguing that using the money to create a foundation instead of distributing it to those who've already suffered discrimination "would be [more] discrimination, because not all people are going to benefit."
While Sullivan has already rejected another group's request to distribute the remaining money in another round to claimants, citing the terms of the settlement agreement and legal precedent, he has encouraged Keepseagle to get her own lawyer, given that she disagrees with Sellers, her current counsel. While indicating that he may not agree with her position in the end, Sullivan told her, "[A]t least you'll have the opportunity to be heard."