Plan includes individual payouts and casino project

Depending on how its members vote next month on a money-sharing proposal, the Yurok Tribe says it could break ground on a hotel-resort-casino project this spring thanks to a recent legal settlement with the U.S. government.

Individual tribal members also stand to profit from the settlement, according to tribal officials.

The Yurok Tribal Council approved a referendum Friday that, if approved in a tribal election, would distribute 63 percent of the $27.5 million settlement to its members, according to a Yurok press release. The remaining 37 percent, about $10 million, would pay for construction of the hotel-resort-casino, said Tribal Chairman Thomas O'Rourke Sr.

"This will complete construction," he said, adding that the resort-casino's design and permitting work have been completed. "It will sit directly across the tribal administration building next to the highway."

The settlement, finalized Jan. 4, stems from a class action lawsuit involving the Yuroks and 73 other tribes as plaintiffs. The case dealt with claims of federal mismanagement of tribal trust lands and trust assets, O'Rourke said. The Yurok Tribe currently has 3,500 acres of trust lands.

The Native American Rights Foundation filed the lawsuit, Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar, on behalf of the Yurok Tribe and the other plaintiffs, O'Rourke said. NARF also negotiated and finalized the settlement. The tribes involved in the case were encouraged to settle their claims through an initiative known as the Settlement Proposal to the Obama Administration, according to the Yurok Tribe.

Under the tribe's referendum, a portion of the funds set aside for the resort-casino would also pay for legal fees owed to NARF as well as "the cost of tribal attorneys, staff and Council who also worked on securing the settlement," the tribe said in the press release.

The Tribal Council accepted the settlement agreement in November, but wasn't able to notify its members until the settlement was finalized because of a confidentiality agreement, according to the tribe.

Tribal members will be notified about the settlement via the tribe's newsletter and by mail, O'Rourke said. Tribal spokesman Matt Mais added that the Tribal Council voted on the referendum at its regular public meeting.

If the referendum passes, tribal officials will distribute about $17 million from the settlement to individual tribal members, O'Rourke said. According to the proposed per capita distribution plan, tribal members 60 and older would receive $4,500. Tribal members 18andndash;59 would receive $3,500. For all minors, $1,000 would be placed in an irrevocable trust and distributed to them when they turn 18.

The U.S. Treasury Department has yet to release the settlement funds, O'Rourke said. He added that he hopes it releases the funds by the end of February so the tribe could begin distributing the money to its members and also start construction on the resort-casino.

Tribal members will be asked to vote on the referendum via mail-in ballot. All ballots must be received in the Klamath Post Office by Feb. 20.

"Providing the measure passes we can break ground in early spring," O'Rourke said. "Once completed we'll be ready for grand opening in spring 2014."

The hotel-casino will consist of a 60-room Holiday Inn Express and a casino with 125 machines, O'Rourke said. In addition to providing jobs for tribal members, the hotel-resort-casino will also help grow Klamath's economic base, he said.

"We will own it outright, which gives us an edge on being able to be successful," he said. "The revenues generated by the hotel-resort-casino will be used to address the needs of the people."

This is the second large settlement the Yurok Tribe has received from the federal government in six years. In 2007, tribal members approved a referendum that distributed 90 percent of more than $90 million obtained from the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act directly to tribal members. The remaining 10 percent went to tribal government to be invested and used to build infrastructure and implement new programs to assist members.

Tribal members chose that option, known as the 90/10 option, over a 50/50 option, which would have distributed 50 percent of the settlement to tribal members in a per capita payment and the other 50 percent to the tribal government. As a result, each member received about $15,500.

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