BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - The White House would like an end to the long-running fight over Indian trust fund accounting, presidential assistant Ruben Barrales indicated to Indian Country Today in a brief encounter on the main barrio street of this decaying industrial city.
Taking a few questions before a political rally, Barrales commented, "It's fair to say that getting it ended, preferably in a final solution, is in everyone's best interest."
As assistant to President Bush for intergovernmental relations, Barrales is considered the White House point man for relations with Indian tribes, as well as state and local governments. He dodged the question of White House involvement in a recent rider to the Interior Department Appropriations bill placing a moratorium on court-ordered "historical accounting" of the muddled Indian trust fund accounts.
"I'm not involved with leg affairs," he said.
After the controversial rider passed the House in a close vote on Halloween, Interior Secretary Gale Norton disavowed the language and blamed it on a direct deal between the White House and the Congressional appropriations committees. Congressmen involved in Indian policy also complained they had been kept in the dark.
Barrales did show a keen interest in the upcoming leadership contest in the National Congress of American Indians, in which different approaches to the trust fund litigation could play a muted role. Ernie Stensgar, tribal council chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Idaho, is challenging incumbent NCAI President Tex Hall.
Stensgar recently campaigned at the annual meeting of the United South and Eastern Tribes, some of whose leaders have met with Interior officials seeking solutions to the trust fund morass separately from the class action law suit brought by Eloise Cobell.
Barrales emphasized, however, that he was not involved in internal NCAI politics. "We're much more concerned with their policy," he said.
He also listened intently to a question about reports that President Bush's grandfather, former U.S. Senator Prescott W. Bush, R-Conn., had participated as a young army officer in robbing the grave of Apache hero Geronimo to procure some of his remains for the Yale College secret society Skull and Bones. He said he was not aware of the story and accepted several issues of Indian Country Today to take back to the White House.
The youthful White House aide, a Mexican-American from Los Angeles who ran successfully for local office there as a Republican, came to Bridgeport to support the Republican candidate for mayor, Rick Torres. High-level Republicans saw the close contest as a chance to take control of City Hall from a corruption-battered Democratic Party.
The previous elected mayor Joseph Ganim recently began a nine-year prison term on corruption charges. His successor and the Democratic candidate for mayor, was previously president of the City Council.
Although tribal recognition and casino politics are a major factor locally, it hasn't been a campaign issue because both candidates oppose a casino.
A Torres campaign official said it would be dangerous to introduce a casino into the city until what he called the pervasive corruption in City Hall was cleaned up.
Torres told ICT that the issue was out of his hands because it hinged on the pending recognition petition of the Golden Hill Paugussett Indians, whose former reservation is now a Bridgeport neighborhood.
He said he doubted the petition would be approved and echoed criticism of the recognition process frequently heard from Connecticut politicians. Torres was the unsuccessful candidate for mayor.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., also accompanied Barrales. Even though he has been a vociferous critic of the BIA's recognition office, he avoided the issue while glad-handing people at the rally and dancing a few merengue steps.