American Indian allies change sides

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NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. - Government tribal experts are finding jobs in the private sector, fighting tribes they previously befriended. And taxpayers at the local, state and federal levels are being asked to pay for their switch in allegiance.

This growing legal field is being worked vigorously by the Washington, D.C., law firm Perkins Coie, under the leadership of two former Interior Department officials. In the course of fighting tribal recognition petitions, the firm has funneled payments from towns to former employees of the BIA's Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) while trying to provide them cover from public scrutiny.

Proof of what Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Chief James Cunha called a "major conflict of interest" emerged recently in Perkins Coie invoices to the southeastern Connecticut towns of North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston. The three towns hired the firm to fight the BIA's "proposed positive" finding of recognition more than a year ago for the Paucatucks and their neighbors the Eastern Pequots.

The invoices, obtained by the Norwich Bulletin, show payments of more than $20,000 to two former BIA employees, Kay Davis and Michael L. Lawson. Covering only four months in 2000, they reflect a fraction of the estimated $1 million the towns spent in suits against the Eastern Pequots and the recognized Mashantucket (western) Pequots, owners of the Foxwoods Casino Resort. The towns refused to release a full accounting of consultants' fees, saying that since the payments go through Perkins Coie, they are shielded by lawyer-client privilege.

The bulk of the invoiced payments, more than $19,000, went to the consulting firm Morgan Angel and Associates, where Lawson is one of eight listed staff members.

Another $1,100 was invoiced to Kay Davis, who spent hours interviewing Eastern and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot tribal members during her three and a half years at the BAR.

Cunha said he was "taken aback" by news of Lawson's work for Perkins Coie. "Mike Lawson helped us write our petition, wrote the history section and helped us find our genealogist and historian."

Lawson worked for the Paucatucks in the mid-'90s as general manager of the private consulting firm, Historical Research Associates Inc. The tribe released a Dec. 15, 1995, letter written by Lawson on HRA letterhead to attract financial backers for the Paucatuck petition.

"We fully expect that the BIA will find that the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation meets all of the seven mandatory criteria for Federal Acknowledgment," Lawson wrote.

Reached at Morgan Angel, Lawson said he couldn't comment on his work with Perkins Coie. He briefly confirmed that he joined HRA in September 1993, after 13 years at the BIA, and then left three years later for Morgan Angel.

Lawson said he "continued to have a number of Sioux tribes as clients," resulting from research which helped the Cheyenne River, Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations win a $300 million trust fund settlement after their landed were flooded by dam projects.

As to conflicts, he noted that Morgan Angel's primary client was the Department of Justice, which sometimes went to court on behalf of tribes and sometimes against them. "I don't think we have a conflict there any more than the lawyers in Justice have a conflict," he said.

The Morgan Angel client list, however, raises questions. One of its 13 American Indian clients is the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Kent, Conn. As a "representative project," the firm cites its report supporting the still pending Schaghticoke acknowledgment petition, including "a thorough presentation of evidence of descent from the historic tribe through town, colony and state & federal ethnographic sources." Lawson said he wrote this report.

Yet Perkins Coie, listed as another Morgan Angel client, is beginning to help the town of Kent defend against a land claims suit brought by the same Schaghticoke tribe.

Kent First Selectman Dolores R. Schiesel told ICT the law firm "is working on some research." She said the town had not yet paid a fee, but the billing would be discussed in an executive session of the Board of Selectmen the first week in May.

The Town Meeting, she said, has appropriated $200,000 for representation in either the land claim suit or the recognition process.

Such taxpayer money is fueling the growth of this legal business, say some tribal backers, attracting firms to build reputations as "Indian-fighters." Perkins Coie has positioned itself as a leading firm for towns "impacted" by federal American Indian policy. The partners leading its American Indian practice are Donald C. Baur and Guy R. Martin - both had careers at Interior.

Neither Baur nor Martin was available for comment, but Baur defended his firm's practice of hiring former BIA employees in earlier interviews.

Voters in the impacted towns have so far been willing to foot mounting bills, but politicians at higher levels are offering to come to their aid. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal asked the General Assembly to add $1.3 million to his budget to hire lawyers and specialists on American Indian issues. The Appropriations Committee has threatened to scale down or eliminate his request.

On the federal level, Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., submitted a bill to provide up to $8 million from the Interior budget as grants to help towns offset legal costs "incurred as part of the tribal recognition and land claims process."

"These towns spend thousands of dollars in legal fees, and they have to divert so many precious tax dollars from such essential services as education, roads and development initiatives just to pay their expenses," she said.

Johnson announced her bill in March at the Kent Town Hall, which is in her district, and noted it would repay "some, if not all, of the $200,000" the town voted for the Schaghticoke suits.