FROM THE ARCHIVE

Beyond drama BIA investigation a bust

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MONDAY, MARCH 4, 2002

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The 14-page investigation into the Clinton administration's handling of federal recognition and related issues is preceded with this two sentence disclaimer.

It hasn't stopped copies of the document from being leaked to the press and other outlets through a sieve.

Completed last week, the report was made public by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the member of Congress who sought the probe as the Bush administration was set to take control of the White House more than a year ago. He and other Republicans tied federal recognition to political contributions to the Democratic party.

But while "Allegations Involving Irregularities in the Tribal Recognition Process and Concerns Related to Indian Gaming" certainly reveals some interesting and amusing happenings, the premise that money influenced Kevin Gover's reign at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is completely dispelled. At one time or another, Wolf and friends -- citing reports published by The Boston Globe -- alleged that the Clinton officials made decisions because someone waved a check in front of them.

Instead, what the report has found is far less glamorous. At best, it depicts officials who spent more time socializing than signing documents. At worst, it reveals the type of incompetence found throughout the federal government.

"What they came up with was Keystone cops stuff," said Gover in an interview.

The Missing Link
Indeed, what the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General has discovered after conducting more than fifty interviews over a seven-month period is mostly drama. Other than concluding that the six decisions made during the last two years of the Clinton administration were "highly unusual" -- only because it happened just once in prior history -- the report shows no political influence on Gover or his deputy Michael Anderson.

If anything, the report confirms a conflict of personalities. Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) Chief Lee Fleming and his staff are portrayed, at one point, as hard-working do-gooders who were "very upset" that they had to work late on the last day of the Clinton administration.

On the other hand, Fleming and his staff, the report concedes, can't seem to complete work on more than two recognition petitions a year. Their glacial pace, to the casual observer, would defy explanation why staying until 8:00 p.m. on January 19, 2001, made working for Anderson "pure hell."

But through all this fuss, no one seems to catch that Anderson signed documents for the Nipmuc Nation that day but not for the Duwamish Tribe. Until January 22, that is, when Fleming shows up to the office of Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell and points out the discrepancy.

Eventually, Blackwell and Fleming discuss the need for Anderson to sign the Duwamish papers, the report states. Anderson is summoned to the building, where an unidentified employee whose name is redacted gives him the three documents to sign.

The unnamed employee then dates the documents "January 19," the report states. Anderson readily admits to the Inspector General that he signed the documents. Blackwell admits she allowed the affair to happen.

But while Fleming appears involved, only the conduct of Anderson and Blackwell is referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution. The department declined for Anderson and referred Blackwell and the employee back to the department for potential "administrative" rebuke.

Blackwell's retirement was announced last week.

Do You Know Who I Am?
According to a court document filed in the Cobell v. Norton litigation, former Deputy Commissioner Hilda Manuel ruled the BIA with an "iron fist."

According to the report, the mettle continued after she left in early 2000. The Inspector General relies on the word of a BAR researcher who claims Manuel called her in August 2000 and demanded information on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, whose recognition has been pending at the bureau for decades.

"When Manuel first called, she did not identify herself," the report states. "The cultural anthropologist thought, by the tone of the conversation, she was dealing with a BIA superior."

"The anthropologist said that Manuel demanded an immediate response and made it clear the any delay would not be accepted," the report continues. "Manuel later identified herself as 'Hilda' and then asked, 'Do you know who I am?'"

Because the Mashpee are not a federal recognized tribe, such apparent lobbying would appear to violate federal law. As such, Manuel's alleged conduct was referred to Justice, which declined to prosecute. The report never states if Hilda was interviewed or if she declined.

Other Issues
Two other topics that were the focus of newspaper articles and which were used by Wolf to bolster his claims for an investigation are deflated rather quickly by the report.

First are the casino agreements which tribes frequently sign to obtain financing. The Globe reported that the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut agreed to hand over a hefty portion of its profits to a gaming company.

The suggestion was that this "consulting agreement" violated federal law. The investigation, however, concludes that that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act applies only to "management contracts" and not to the consulting pacts.

The second issue was the insinuation that Anderson somehow helped Park Place Entertainment, the world's largest gaming company, avoid the jurisdiction of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Tribal members sued and won a multi-billion judgment against the company.

But it turns out that the letter referenced by the Globe put BIA policy in line with a federal judge's decision -- not with gaming interests. Anderson in October 2000 affirmed the tribe's traditional three-chief system of government, which a federal court ruled was the legitimate authority.

A third and final issue is rendered "moot," the report states, because the Bush administration has pulled back approval of Class II gaming ordinances for the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe, both of Florida. Anderson -- acting on a ruling from the National Indian Gaming Commission -- on January 19 approved the ordinances and no political or monetary influence was reported.

A Conclusion
So what does all of this mean? A greater push to strip the BIA of its recognition duties, no doubt.

There will also be attempts to keep recognition right where it is. The Bush administration opposes an independent commission and says it is addressing long-standing problems.

According to Gover, the report represents something else. "All of this is an attempt to intimidate people who would otherwise make pro-tribal decisions," he said.

"That's what this whole thing has been about."

Related Stories:
Ashcroft urged to charge BIA officials (3/1)
Key trust reform player leaving BIA (2/28)
Sharon Blackwell leaving BIA (2/27)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Changes to gaming law sought (6/19)
Trust land decision called sneaky (2/5)
Recognition of Va. tribes opposed (1/26)
Republicans seek BIA reform (12/20)
Recognition rumor almost a reality (12/20)
Republicans want gaming investigation (12/18)
Republicans call for BIA investigation (09/22)