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BIA's Anderson backed amid calls for resignation
Monday, May 10, 2004

What began out as a way for assistant secretary Dave Anderson to avoid controversy has evolved into his first political crisis.

Last month, Anderson quietly removed himself from all federal recognition, gaming and gaming-related land acquisition matters. In a memo to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, he said he didn't want his past work with tribal casinos to cloud the high-profile issues.

"Thank you for initiating this action to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest," Norton wrote in response.

But instead of relieving long-standing allegations that the $15 billion gaming industry is unduly influencing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the broad recusal has generated fresh criticism. Politicians from Connecticut, where recognition is closely linked with casinos, think Anderson should resign if he can't do a significant portion of his job.

"It is the equivalent of appointing the administrator of the Food and Drug Administration and saying that administrator will have nothing to do with drugs, period," said Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal last week.

Even Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), who supported Anderson's nomination, expressed some doubts. At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee last month, he questioned the wisdom of Anderson's decision.

"It looks to me he's recused himself of about half of the responsibilities he was appointed to do," said Campbell, chairman of the committee. "I don't know why he wanted the job, frankly, if he's going to recuse himself from so much of the things I think that his responsibility is to do."

But while tribal and Indian leaders said they were concerned about the blanket recusal, none supported the call for Anderson's resignation. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said critics were jumping the gun by going after a relatively new political appointee. Anderson joined the Bush administration in February.

"Like him or not, he's still new to the position," Hall said in an interview. "He is a fellow American Indian and we want to give him that chance."

Hall questioned the real intentions of Anderson's detractors. "We know they don't want any more tribes in Connecticut," he noted. "If they are using that to say Anderson should resign -- I don't think that's really a valid viewpoint."

Kevin Gover, former assistant secretary under the Clinton administration, also dismissed some of the heat Anderson has taken. He called the Connecticut opponents "hypocritical" because they are behind allegations that gaming affects the way the BIA makes decisions on recognition and other related matters.

"These are crocodile tears that they are shedding," he said.

But Gover, whose decisions on federal recognition still generate controversy, said there are real consequences to consider. The assistant secretary needs to be "accountable" for his or her decisions, he said.

"From the perspective of Indian Country it's not a good thing for the assistant secretary to give up any part of his powers and I guess I'm at a bit of a loss as to why he would do so so willingly," Gover said of Anderson. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

BIA officials point out that Anderson continues to perform a significant part of his duties. He is constantly meeting with Indian students, teachers, parents and tribal leaders to promote the value of education. He is also making economic development on reservations a priority, supporters say.

"He is out there doing a good job," said BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling. "He's focusing on the 562 federally recognized tribes and helping them enhance their programs -- law enforcement, social services, education and other programs that aren't always publicized. That's smart of him. It's a good path for him to follow."

Federal recognition, while a hot button issue, is a small program within BIA. The office that evaluates group seeking federal status has a staff of about a dozen and a budget of about $1 million in an agency with a $2.3 billion budget. Education, on the other hand, accounts for more than $800 million, including construction and repair of BIA schools.

Gaming and gaming-related land acquisition are important, Gover acknowledged, "but no more than things like law enforcement and education." "It's one of the main things an assistant secretary does but in terms of time, they are not the most demanding things that an assistant secretary does," he said.

Gover put trust reform at a higher priority as did Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney who is handling the Cobell lawsuit over individual trust funds. Anderson has publicly praised the case, an attitude Harper called "refreshing."

"I think his perspective -- his recognition that the Cobell suit, and Judge [Royce] Lamberth's role in it, has been the impetus for trust reform -- is a positive development," he said in an interview.

Hall said Anderson should be given time to respond to the criticisms being raised and work with Norton and the department on a solution. "They need to limit that recusal to potential conflicts of interest and not across the board," he said.

Principal deputy assistant secretary Aurene Martin, the second-in-command at BIA, is handling all the areas Anderson is avoiding. Martin held the acting assistant secretary position for more than a year while the White House sought a replacement for Neal McCaleb, who retired in December 2002.

It was Martin who disclosed Anderson's recusal last month when asked about his role in federal recognition. "His previous activities with gaming -- he didn't want that to confuse the issue," she told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

During his confirmation hearing before the committee last October, Anderson said he would recuse himself on matters dealing with a former business partner. The ex-partner, Lyle Berman, owns a company called Lakes Entertainment that is financing tribes seeking federal recognition and land for casinos.

Anderson also said he would sell his shares in Caesars Entertainment, formerly known as Park Place Entertainment. The firm, which is the largest gaming company in the world, has several land-into-trust and gaming decisions pending at the BIA.

Relevant Documents:
Anderson - Norton Recusal Memos (April 2004)

Confirmation Hearing:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee (October 22, 2003)

Related Stories:
Senator Coleman: Anderson should not resign (5/7)
Dodd says Anderson recusal came out of nowhere (5/7)
BIA bashed over federal recognition decisions (5/6)
Dodd calls on Anderson to resign over broad recusal (5/6)
Anderson recused on all federal recognition matters (5/5)
BIA critical of main components of recognition bill (04/22)
Anderson takes message to Indian Country youth (2/18)
Anderson asks for prayers in new job as head of BIA (02/05)
'Famous' Dave Anderson confirmed to head BIA (12/11)
BIA nominee wins endorsement of Senate panel (10/23)
White House acts to fill top BIA leadership post (09/15)
Biography: BIA nominee 'Famous' Dave Anderson (09/15)
Lack of BIA nominee puzzles Indian Country (08/07)

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