The other shoe has dropped in the proposed settlement alleging state mismanagement of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund: Attorneys for the plaintiffs want $7 million in legal fees and court costs.
The bill has caught some in San Juan County by surprise.
The trust was established in 1933 by the federal government to manage 37½ percent of royalties from oil wells on Utah's portion of the Navajo Nation for San Juan County Navajos. Allegations of mismanagement have dogged the trust since the 1950s, leading to lawsuits.
Plaintiffs in Pelt, et. al., v. Utah, a class action initiated in 1991, originally sought $150 million. But in January, the case was settled for $33 million. The settlement and legal fees must be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 29.
Now, attorneys for the Utah Navajos have submitted a bill equivalent to 21 percent of the proposed award.
San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens, who is not Navajo, said that's too much.
"I guess I've got some heartburn," he said Friday about the legal bill. "I think that's excessive."
Many believed the attorneys were working pro bono -(without pay) for the Utah Navajos, Stevens said.
"The Navajos in Utah have been mistreated by the Navajo Nation as well as the Utah Legislature," he said. "My main concern is that if you're going after the state of Utah for mismanaging the Trust Fund, attorney fees should not come out of that award."
Brian Barnard of Salt Lake City is one of four attorneys seeking payment for work on the case over the past two decades.
"We haven't been paid for 18 years," he said. "I, personally, have not heard any complaints."
The normal rate for such contingency cases is 33 percent, he noted.
Further, Barnard said, the proposed bills are itemized, so that plaintiffs can see exactly all the time accrued and expenses incurred since 1991.
Barnard, along with attorneys John Pace, Parker Nielson and Alan Taradash, mailed notices to 11,000 Navajo beneficiaries to explain the settlement and the legal bills. Various meetings will be held in and around the reservation in the coming weeks, Barnard said, to answer plaintiffs' questions.
Navajos can object to the settlement agreement or the attorney fees through the U.S. District Court for Utah.
Mark Maryboy, a Navajo and former San Juan County commissioner, said Friday that his original understanding dating back to 1991 was that the legal work would be pro bono.
But when the settlement agreement was reached in January, Utah Navajos were told legal fees and costs would equal $5 million.
"I was OK with the $5 million," Maryboy said. "As far as the $7 million, I really don't understand. I would have to ask some questions."
Attorneys for Utah Navajo plaintiffs in Pelt, et.al., v. Utah will hold three meetings to explain legal fees and court costs:
Navajo Mountain Chapter House » 10 a.m. June 6
Edge of Cedars Museum, Blanding » 2 p.m. June 12
Oljato Chapter House » 10 a.m. June 13