Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette - February 2, 2001

Landowners in Miami case to get help

Governor signs defense fund bill into law Thursday

Author: KATE CLEMENTS News-Gazette Capitol Bureau Chief

SPRINGFIELD - East Central Illinois landowners defending their property in federal court against claims by the Miami Indians now have up to $100,000 from the state to pay attorne y's fees.

Surrounded by area lawmakers, Gov. George Ryan signed the defense fund bill into law Thursday at the Capitol.

Bankrolled by a New York man who develops shopping malls and casinos, the Miami tribe of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit in July against 15 landowners in 15 counties. The tribe claims that it is the rightful owner of about 2.6 million acres under an 1805 federal treaty.

Among the defendants is former Vermilion County Board Chairman Max Call of Georgetown.

"I think it's going to be very helpful to the people who are involved," said Gov. George Ryan. "All of a sudden they're going to end up with a lot of legal expenses if we don't help them. This is a very unique situation, frankly, with the Miami Indian tribe coming in trying to take their farms away. I think that's our obligation to help them defend their rights, and that's what we're going to do."

Only a few of the property owners named in the lawsuit have title insurance. The rest have to pay for their defense out of their own pockets.

The case involving the 15 landowners is especially important because if the tribe wins in court, all property in the claim area, including the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois University, would be in jeopardy, lawmakers pointed out.

"I think it sends a message that the state of Illinois is behind the landowners in this part of the state," said state Rep. Tom Berns, R-Urbana. "It's not' just the 15 landowners, it's all of us in the Wabash watershed, and in fact it may be all of us in all of the state of Illinois, which at one time was all owned by the various Indian tribes."

The new law allows the attorney general to spend up to $100,000 from the office's contractual services budget to reimburse the landowners' attorney, William Broom of Carbondale. It limits Broom's payments to $200 an hour - the same rate special assistant attorneys general are paid. The law expires July 1.

"I'm just thrilled, because this has been a long process of getting it passed," said state Sen. Judy Myers, R-Danville, who sponsored the bill.

The judge in the case has not yet ruled on whether the state can intervene on behalf of the landowners without having to give up its immunity. So, for now, the defense fund is the only help from the state that the 15 people named in the lawsuit will get.

State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, warned that the defense fund would probably not scare the Miami Indians into backing off their claims, since other tribes have had success with similar lawsuits in other states.

"I don't think this bill will make this suit go away, and I think people need to take this much more seriously than perhaps we did when we first heard about it," Black said. "Hopefully this gives the 15 landowners some resources to at least make sure the federal judge understands all the complexities of this suit. That's what we hope for."

The Miami tribe's primary trial attorney, Thomas Osterholt, said, "It's the opinion of the tribe that this money would be better spent sitting down and reaching a fair settlement, which would eliminate the lawsuit completely," he said. "The Miami tribe has consistently said that it believes a settlement could be reached, which would be mutually beneficial to all parties and relieve landowners of the cloud on their title. This act of the governor will only continue the litigation."

The trial is set for June 2001.

"The Miami tribe plans to be ready to try the case, and will resist any continuances sought by the state of Illinois or the landowners," Osterholt said.

Miami tribe spokesman George Tiger was not available for comment.

Copyright (c) 2001 The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette



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