FROM THE ARCHIVE

Striking Out: 'I think you get the picture'

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WEDNESDAY, APRIL 17, 2002

It's a pitch made every day.

Seeking clients, a lobbyist plays up his connections to federal government officials. We went to school together, we worked together, we hang out together, the pitch goes.

And for a fee, the lobbyist offers to use this influence to the advantage of the potential client. "No one is better connected than me," the offer goes.

It happens so often that it's hardly noteworthy. Except when it gets results, as tribes forking over $500 an hour to one GOP lobbyist have happily discovered.

And when it involves the touchy subject of federal recognition and its inextricable link to the $10 billion and growing Indian gaming industry. "I am in a position to be extremely helpful with this as well as other issues," the lobbyists says.

When the pitch is written on stationery of a consulting company formed by Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's number one aide, it is also likely to draw attention. Wayne Smith got some of that in the current issue of TIME magazine, which reports his recusal on matters dealing with two tribes seeking recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But it wasn't Smith playing up his connections. He's already got those, assigned by McCaleb to work on land-into-trust, recognition and gaming issues.

It was Smith's partner, Phil Bersinger, who tried to get some recognition of his own. In nearly identical letters to the Chinook Nation of Washington, whose federal status is in limbo thanks to delays by McCaleb, and the recognized California Valley Miwok Tribe, he touted his close ties.

"As a matter of fact, this letter is on our old letterhead / stationery as I am still waiting for my new letterhead / stationery to arrive," Bersinger wrote on his "Bersinger & Smith" pad.

According to Bersinger, he and Smith go way back. "On a more personal level, Wayne and I still vacation together and he stays with me at my home whenever he comes to Sacramento (which is every 2-3 weeks to see his kids)," he wrote.

"I could go on and on, but you [sic] I think you get the picture," he continued.

Bersinger told Chinook and Coastal Valley officials he could "accelerate" their dealings with the Interior and the BIA and "achieve the desired result / action / determination." In the case of the Chinook, he said he could help its stalled federal recognition bid at a tune of $1,000 a month. For the Miwok, he pledged assistance on legal and constitutional issues.

Neither tribe took the bait, though. "It was improper to pay for what should be rightfully ours anyway," Linda Amelie, an active Chinook tribal member told TIME.

"It was a shakedown," charged Tiger Paulk, the Coastal Valley tribe's in-house consultant.

Bersinger didn't return calls placed to his California office. According to state records provided to Indianz.Com, Smith serves as chairman and is an active owner in Bersinger & Smith, which is based in Gold River.

Smith didn't return comment either. Prior to joining the Bush administration, he served in the California Department of Justice and worked on gaming issues with Bersinger.

Related Documents:
Letter to Chinook Nation (4/17)

Read the TIME article:
The Man to See On Indian Affairs? (April 22 Issue)

Related Stories:
BIA deputy recused on recognition (4/16)
Wall Street Journal blasted for 'drive by' (4/5)
GOP lobbyist scores big with tribes (4/3)
Getting there, McCaleb takes on recognition (3/15)
Inside the BIA, plenty of drama (3/4)
Ashcroft urged to charge BIA officials (3/1)
McCaleb affirms recognition of Cowlitz Tribe (1/3)
Solutions sought for 'hijacked' recognition (11/9)
Chinook recognition sent back to BIA (11/8)
Chinook recognition to be reconsidered (11/7)
Deadline nearing for Chinook Nation (11/5)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Reforming federal recognition (10/26)
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)
Norton urged to uphold recognition (10/11)
Chinook Nation faces reversal (10/3)
McCaleb reverses Clinton recognitions (9/28)
Cowlitz recognition upheld by Interior (6/15)
McCaleb to listen 'closely' to recognition experts (8/9)
Muwekma Tribe denied recognition (7/31)
McCaleb decision sure to draw scrutiny (7/31)
BIA pushed to provide 'answers' on tribes (7/26)
McCaleb endorses BIA on recognition (6/14)
Gover's 'activist' legacy escapes McCaleb (6/13)
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Federal recognition battles continue (5/10)