Charges and counter-charges fly in BIA controversy

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? Investigators from three different agencies are moving quickly to interview figures in the burgeoning controversy over BIA's number two officer Wayne Smith.

Ever harsher charges and counter-charges have been flying since the embattled Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, accused his accusers of pursuing a hidden agenda, in an exclusive interview April 26 with Indian Country Today. Since publication of the interview on the ICT web site, the primary target of his suspicions, the dispossessed leadership of the Buena Vista Rancheria near Sacramento, have bluntly and repeatedly accused him of "lying."

Jean Munoz, a professional public relations person now speaking for Buena Vista tribal leaders and lawyers, upped the ante in the fray by calling on Interior Secretary Gale Norton to respond publicly to the charges and to direct Interior Department public affairs officials to stay out of the controversy. Interior spokesmen have helped coordinate Smith's self-defense. Smith says that Norton is backing him "absolutely."

Smith, chief nuts-and-bolts administrator at the BIA, has been under intense scrutiny since reports in various publications, including ICT, revealed that a former business partner, Philip M. Bersinger, had sent letters to various tribes promising to exploit the connection for large fees.

Although several of the letters have been verified, Smith said that spurious documents were also circulating. He said he had asked the FBI supervisor in Lafayette, La., and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub of that state to investigate one apparently phony letter, referring to a Louisiana state gaming compact.

Agents for the Inspector General's office at Interior and the FBI are now conducting interviews around the country on the affair. Principle figures as far apart as Sacramento and Stockton, Calif., and Lake Charles, La., have confirmed to ICT that they have scheduled meetings with federal investigators.

Smith told ICT that he had instigated the inquiries, believing that some of the charges against him were based on forged documents. He and Norton's deputy chief of staff, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, had gone jointly to Interior's Inspector General to request an investigation, he said. He also released letters he had written to the senior FBI agent at Lake Charles and the state Attorney General of Louisiana, calling for the probe.

Smith said he believed the rash of stories about the alleged influence peddling of his "ex-friend" Bersinger grew out of a dispute over the rightful leadership of the tiny Buena Vista Rancheria Miwok Indians in Ione, Calif. The District Superintendent of the BIA recently rejected the claim of the Potts family, which has financial backing for a $150 million casino from Cascade Entertainment Group. Instead, the district official upheld an anti-casino claimant.

Speaking by telephone from San Diego, where he was attending a meeting of the Joint Interior/Tribal Leaders Task Force on the Indian trust fund, Smith said he had refused to overturn the District Superintendent's decision, sending it instead through the statutory appeals procedure.

His action, he said, "obviously didn't make the Buena Vista Rancheria people very happy." According to a published report, he said, the casino backers had spent $10 million supporting the Potts family claim. He said the negative decision "was the crux of the whole issue."

Although Smith originally thought Cascade Entertainment was based in Louisiana, that information was inaccurate. Munoz, the Buena Vista spokeswoman, was unable to say just where Cascade was located, however. Information on the company and its main figures was not available through public references on corporations, such as the Standard and Poor's directory.

Smith also attacked the credibility of a main source of a Time magazine story that was the first report on the letters. Sacramento businesswoman Linda Amelia, a Chinook tribal member, told Time that a letter from Bersinger to the Chinooks boasting of "his tremendous access and influence" was so "bare-faced" that she thought it might be an FBI sting. Instead, said Smith, Amelia helped draft the letter. He sent ICT a copy of the document with a note at the top, in what he said was Amelia's handwriting, saying "Great Letter."

Amelia confirmed to ICT that she did indeed write that note on a draft faxed to her office by Bersinger. She said that she and Bersinger had met at lunch and also held a two-hour phone call to discuss recognition of her tribe the Chinook. Although she holds no official position with the tribe and has been repudiated by at least one Tribal Council member, she claims direct descent from its historic leader Chief Comcomly. She said she wrote the note because she was excited that she had managed to get Bersinger to put what she thought were extortionate demands into writing.

Amelia said that she had sent a copy of the Chinook letter to John Peebles of the prominent Indian law firm Monteau and Peebles, who is representing the Buena Vista Rancheria.

This letter and another to the California Valley Miwok Tribal Council were sent on the letterhead of the since-dissolved partnership of Bersinger & Smith, and they have been verified by officers of the tribe.

Munoz said that the Buena Vista leaders had also received a letter from Bersinger, asking $25,000. She said the tribe had decided not to release the letter except to investigators for the FBI and the Interior Inspector General.

Smith is demanding investigation of yet another letter on Bersinger and Smith letterhead that he calls fraudulent. Addressed to Vice Chairman William Worfel of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and dated Feb. 15, it repeats paragraphs from the first two describing Bersinger's close friendship with Smith. It then offers to disrupt a gaming compact that a potential casino competitor, the Jena Band of Choctaws, had negotiated with the state of Louisiana.

After noting that the Jena Band had retained the services of former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour (misspelling his name as "Barber") to intercede with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the letter purports to offer Bersinger's influence with Smith to "effectuate the rejection of the Jena Band compact." Calling this effort a "heavy lift", the letter asks for a $250,000 advance payment.

Smith forwarded a declaration from Bersinger, signed on April 11, stating "under penalty of perjury": "Specifically, I never wrote a letter, dated Feb. 15, 2002, addressed to Mr. William G. Worfel, Vice-Chairman, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana." The Coushatta, he added, "said they never received this letter."

In forwarding this letter to FBI supervisor Richard McHenry in Lafayette and Louisiana Attorney General Ieyoub, Smith asked them to "investigate this matter and, if appropriate, prosecute the responsible person or persons accordingly."

"Although no threats of extortion have been received by me to date, the obvious implications of this kind of letter must be taken very seriously," he wrote.

FBI agents in Louisiana are also looking into the timeline of the BIA's rejection of the Jena Band compact. The compact with Louisiana Governor Mike Foster was kept secret until February 6. A pro-Coushatta delegation flew to Washington, D.C. on February 25 to oppose it, and it was rejected on March 6.