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BIA official under fire for influence peddling

WASHINGTON ? Documents obtained by Indian Country Today substantiate allegations that a former business associate of Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Smith, number two man at the BIA, was soliciting business from tribal governments by promising special access.

Philip M. Bersinger, a consultant based in Sacramento, Calif., and self-described "best friend" of Smith offered his services to at least two tribes seeking federal recognition, according to his letters and interviews with tribal leaders. One tribal officer told ICT that he has also been approached by a federal investigator on the matter.

The two tribes, as first reported in the April 22 Time Magazine, are the Chinook and the California Valley Miwok Tribe.

Smith, a descendant of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux, a lawyer and a former high-ranking official in the California Assembly Republican Caucus, has responsibility for the daily workings of the BIA. After the initial reports, he announced that he had recused himself from the Chinook case and would do the same for the Miwoks.

Bersinger, a partner of Smith in their now dissolved consulting firm Bersinger & Smith, Inc., promised tribal governments seeking federal recognition that he had special access and influence at BIA. He identified Smith as his "single most significant connection" and "the guy who actually runs the BIA and is charge of making most of the policy and administrative decisions" in a letter to Tiger Paulk of the California Valley Miwok Tribal Council.

Bersinger flaunted his close personal relationship with Smith to Paulk and the Miwok council. In the letter, he said that Smith stays at his home whenever he is in Sacramento. Bersinger even wrote the letter on Bersinger & Smith stationary, despite the fact that official records of the California Secretary of State show the company was conditionally dissolved in 1999.

"I could go on and on, but you get the picture," wrote Bersinger.

Paulk, tribal consultant and corporate officer of the small California Valley Miwok tribe, said he was told Bersinger "was the guy who can get things done" and could get their recognition process rolling again after long administrative delays.

"He said 'I have my hand on the pulse at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, because my best friend runs it,'" said Paulk, who added that Bersinger was prepared to charge the Miwok $5,000 per month for his services. Paulk said the contract did not include any concrete deliverables, but clearly implied the fee bought access to Smith.

According to Paulk, Bersinger stated that in a conversation with Smith he had suggested that he was ready to get out of the business of consulting to tribes. Bersinger told Paulk that Smith suggested he not get out of the business as long as he had a friend on the inside.

"We've been trying to get our constitution moved through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was sitting on Wayne Smith's desk," said Paulk. "All we want is for someone (at the Bureau) to put his name on a piece of paper to say that the tribe is organized, and that our constitution is legitimate and binding."

Acceptance of the Miwok constitution at BIA would demonstrate that the tribe is organized and has a legitimate government. Both are key steps in federal recognition.

Indian Country Today has also confirmed that Bersinger solicited the Chinook Tribal Council and Tribal Chairman Gary Johnson with a letter similar to the one sent to the Miwok. The difference between the two is that the letter to the Chinook requests $1,000 a month for at least a 12-month period for his services and a letter of recommendation on official stationary to be used for marketing purposes. The Chinook are also engaged in a struggle for federal recognition.

"We received the letter and decided that was not how we wanted to be recognized ? that's not the way we do business," said Mugs Petit, Vice-Chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council. "We don't want to buy our way into it (federal recognition). We have a historic right." Petit also said the tribe has no interest in doing business with consultants and that its current financial status prevented them from affording it anyway.

Paulk said that he would be meeting with a government investigator next week, but would not say from which agency.

Requests for comment from Bersinger, Smith and Neal McCaleb, the actual head of the BIA, were unanswered as of the time of publication.