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Federal Recognition
Critics take BIA to task over federal recognition

The Bureau of Indian Affairs came under heavy fire at a Congressional hearing on Wednesday even as critics acknowledged they had no direct proof that lobbyists and casino backers are unduly influencing the agency.

The four-hour hearing before the House Government Reform Committee was filled with allegations of "big money" swaying the federal recognition process. Witnesses, all of them from Connecticut, said investors are pouring millions into their state in the hopes of opening casinos.

"There ought to be a full and far-reaching investigation ... of the BIA's actions," said Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.

Republican members of the committee agreed with the assessments and called for a moratorium on recognition decisions, disclosure of investors who back tribes and other changes they said would make the process more "transparent." Some supported the removal of recognition from the BIA altogether.

"We want relief provided to our localities for what can be a very expensive battle on a very uneven playing field," said Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Connecticut), who is sponsoring a bill to provide federal funds to communities that challenge the BIA's decisions.

Witnesses and lawmakers were quick to criticize the BIA but some laid the blame for the controversy on Interior Secretary Gale Norton. They said she hasn't addressed concerns raised during the Clinton administration, when several tribes were granted recognition over concerns they didn't meet the mandatory criteria.

"Frankly, this administration is failing on this issue," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), a former Interior official who opposes all forms of gambling.

Norton was also admonished for agreeing to relieve assistant secretary Dave Anderson of several high-profile duties due to his past involvement in the tribal casino industry. In an April 12 memo, she delegated authority over recognition, gaming and gaming-related land acquisitions to a BIA deputy who did not undergo the Senate confirmation process.

The broad recusal, "makes me question whether [Anderson] should have ever gotten the appointment if you can't do a significant part of your job," said Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut). "That's obviously something we'll talk to the Secretary about."

Despite the heavy charges aired during the hearing, witnesses offered little proof that the $16 billion tribal gaming industry has played a role in the way the BIA makes its decisions. "In this town, there doesn't have to be the overt arm-twisting to get a message across," said Jeff Benedict, head of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion.

"Do we have direct evidence that [lobbyists] influenced the process? No," admitted Benedict, an advocate for the failed policy of termination.

Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's inspector general, said his investigations uncovered "harassment" of the staff that handles recognition -- but that the pressure allegedly came from from top officials at the BIA, not lobbyists.

He also responded to concerns that the BIA's recognition process isn't open enough. "I don't disagree with that criticism and I'm an advocate for more of it," he told the committee. "However, relatively speaking, it is actually one of the more transparent processes at Interior."

Theresa Rosier, a BIA attorney, said the Bush administration has made several changes to the process, including a prohibition on contact between officials and groups within 60 days of a decision. Devaney endorsed the reforms.

"In every federal recognition decision that I've been involved in at the department," Rosier testified, "I have not seen the type of impropriety that's alleged here."

Marcia Flowers, chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, was the only tribal leader who testified. "Political influence is at work here but it is not being exercised by our tribe," she said. "Rather, incredible influence is being brought to bear by a small group of people whose real goal is to stop Indian gaming in Connecticut."

Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Connecticut, was on the witness list but backed out over concerns that the hearing would be biased against tribes.

The state of Connecticut is appealing the BIA's decisions to recognize both the Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke tribes. The Eastern Pequots have been delayed a final ruling on their status for nearly two years.

Anderson did not testify due to his recusal. He is currently traveling on official BIA business. Aurene Martin, the principal deputy assistant secretary now in charge of recognition, is on vacation.

Relevant Documents:
Anderson - Norton Recusal Memos (April 2004) | Testimony: Betting on Transparency (May 5, 2004)