Norton orders inquiry at BIA
WASHINGTON, D. C. ? Interior's Inspector General is investigating allegations of influence peddling involving the number two man at BIA on the orders of Interior Secretary Gale Norton herself, an IG spokeswoman has told Indian Country Today.
The statement, repeated quite plainly, appears to contradict statements by Deputy Assistant Secretary ? Indian Affairs Wayne Smith that he had called for the investigation himself. In the nuanced world of Washington scandals, it could be read as a sign that Norton is distancing herself from the increasingly embattled Smith.
The influence scandal erupted April 18 when Time Magazine reported that a former business partner of Smith, Sacramento, Calif.-based Philip M. Bersinger, solicited lobbying business from several California tribes by baldly declaring his long friendship with Smith, "the guy who actually runs the BIA and is in charge of making most of the policy and administrative decisions."
Veterans of Washington's Indian politics have suspended judgment on Smith himself, arguing that the early reports reflected unsubstantiated and possible boastful claims of influence from Bersinger. Several insiders, including former BIA head Kevin Gover, have praised Smith's performance at BIA, calling him one of the more insightful people there on issues of tribal sovereignty and federal recognition.
Smith has Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux heritage. He was a former senior official in the California Attorney General's office, along with Bersinger.
"It proves the old Washington adage that it's your friends who do you the most harm," said Gover about the early reports.
More recent revelations, however, portray Smith as more directly involved with Bersinger's contacts. Attorneys for the Buena Vista Me-Wuk Rancheria told the Associated Press on April 23 that Smith arranged an unannounced meeting between them and Bersinger, who later asked the tribe to pay him $25000 a month and a cut of potential casino revenues. The Me-Wuk case is the most controversial of the three in which Bersinger is reported to have made a sales pitch.
A separate tribe, the California Valley Miwoks, previously released a letter from Bersinger asking a retainer of $5000 a month. Tiger Paulk, Miwok tribal consultant and corporate officer, told ICT on April 25 that the tribe was sending a letter to Norton asking her to remove Smith from any dealings with their petitions to the BIA. The Miwoks are seeking restoration of their tribal status and approval of a Constitution. The letter also threatened legal action to ensure its "fair and impartial treatment," Paulk said.
In the April 23 report from the Associated Press, attorneys for the Buena Vista Me-Wuk Rancheria said Smith brought Bersinger with him, unannounced, to a Feb. 19 meeting.
"Phil was introduced as 'best friend and former business partner' of Wayne," said tribal spokeswoman Jean Munoz. "It seemed a bit odd."
Smith had been spending the weekend in Sacramento with his old friend Bersinger, and told the attorneys they were heading to Lake Tahoe after the meeting, Munoz said.
On March 11, Bersinger called one of the tribe's attorneys, John Peebles, and said he "could solve the Buena Vista tribe problems at the BIA," Munoz said. At a subsequent April 4 meeting with Peebles, she said Bersinger asked for $25000 a month and a negotiated percentage of a potential casino's gross revenues.
"We thought that was inappropriate and declined," she said.
Smith did not respond to repeated requests for comment through spokesmen at both the Interior Department and BIA. Bersinger has not responded to repeated telephone messages.
The Me-Wuks are in a fight over who will control the rancheria and the potential for a $150 million casino just 35 miles from Sacramento. A BIA regional office had ruled in December against the sole resident of the tribe's rancheria, setting up an appeal within Smith's agency.
From the Me-Wuks, Bersinger sought far more than what he asked for earlier from two other tribes: $1000 a month from the Columbia River basin's Chinooks and $5000 a month from the California Valley Miwoks.
He sent those two tribes nearly identical letters on the old Bersinger & Smith Inc. consulting partnership letterhead, touting his "tremendous access and influence ... no one is better connected than me. My single most significant connection is with Mr. Wayne Smith, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Indian Affairs."
Smith on April 19 denied having anything to do with the letters and said he'd written Bersinger a letter telling him he believed the solicitations to be "inappropriate."
However, a member of the Chinook tribe said Bersinger called her within a couple weeks after she gave Smith her business card at a Republican function in Sacramento.
Linda Amelia said that when she asked how Bersinger got her name "his answer was 'you gave your card to Mr. Smith, didn't you?' He implied he got it from Mr. Smith."
While Smith and his supporters acknowledge Bersinger sent the Chinook and Miwok letters, they fear Smith is being set up by opponents whom they say apparently faked at least two documents obtained, along with the legitimate letters, by the Associated Press.
Smith said he had asked the FBI and Interior's inspector general to investigate not only his former business partner's activities, but also the doctored documents. U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., also has asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to investigate what he termed "serious concerns" raised by the allegations.
In what an Indian lobbyist calls a sworn affidavit, Bersinger says he did not solicit business from the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana in a letter nearly identical to those sent to the Chinooks and Miwoks. A Coushatta spokesman said the tribe never received such a letter.
Smith supporters also note that Amelia admittedly reviewed a draft of Bersinger's letter to her Chinook tribe, though she said she made only grammatical changes.
Meanwhile, the Miwoks and the Pechanga tribe of Temecula Valley disputed Smith's statement April 19 that he has not recused himself from their cases because nothing involving either tribe is currently pending before his office. Spokesmen for both tribes said their issues are indeed under consideration within his purview.
In a letter dated April 24 and signed by tribal chairperson Silvia Burley, the Miwoks recounted their attempts to obtain approval of their tribal constitution from Neal McCaleb, Assistant Secretary ? Indian Affairs. Burley said that after delays in getting a response from McCaleb, the tribe was told the constitution had been sent to Wayne Smith for review.
Burley expressed consternation that Smith had denied any pending business with the Miwoks, "given the fact that we were informed by several sources with the Department, including Mr. Michael Smith, Tribal Services Offices and Assistant Solicitor, Mr. Scott Keep, that final approval on our issues would go through Deputy Assistant Secretary Smith's Office.
"Now we are unsure what to believe except that we do not want to have this whole affair harm our chances of finally getting our Constitution approved and our restoration affirmed."
Interior spokesman Eric Ruff on April 19 said Smith was disqualifying himself from matters involving all three tribes, but on April 23 said he was misinformed.
Smith said he recused himself only from any matters involving the Chinook tribe to avoid any appearance of impropriety.