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Connecticut anti-tribal soap opera continues

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MONTVILLE, Conn -- Russ Beetham's problem would be a sideshow within a sideshow if it weren't for the overheated anti-Indian politics surrounding the two fabulously successful tribal casinos in southeastern Connecticut.

Howard "Russ" Beetham is the mayor of Montville, a small town on the Thames River that is good neighbor to the Mohegan Tribal Nation and its Mohegan Sun Casino. The Mohegans have so far avoided the controversy plaguing the Mashantucket Pequots just eight miles down the road, and Mayor Beetham has praised them for saving the local economy.

In the last month, however, he was caught in a sidedraft from the Pequot storm. The Norwich Bulletin, the local paper, reported it concerned five boxes of BIA documents about Mohegan land claims that were sitting in the basement of the Montville Town Hall. A local resident wanted to research them, and Mayor Beetham allowed him to take the boxes home.

Tribal officials complained. Although the records pre-dated the 1996 opening of the tribal casino, they concerned the Mohegan petition for federal recognition. Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Jayne Fawcett called them "historic documents" and worried that once out of town custody, some could go missing. So the boxes came back the same day.

The fun began. Although the tribe called the incident closed, the town police department began an investigation. Not only is the case still open, state police have been asked to step in. The boxes are sitting -- unopened -- in the office of the town's law firm, awaiting a review to see if they contain any privileged legal documents.

The local paper suggests the case was inflated by an on-going dispute between the mayor and the local police.

Mayor Beetham called it "a nothing thing." And so it would be, if it didn't echo the latest furor among the much more hostile neighbors of the Mashantucket Pequots.

The mayors of the three towns surrounding the Foxwoods Resorts and Casino are in a snit over another missing document, the original "red outline" map that defined the Mashantucket Pequot reservation in the 1983 settlement act.

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Author Jeff Benedict claims in his recent book, "Without Reservation," that map gave the Mashantuckets about 1,000 acres more than Congress intended. The original map, with the land claims outlined in red pen, was supposed to be on file with the Connecticut Secretary of State, who notified town officials last month that she couldn't find it.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal leaped into the fray with a round of letters to the tribe, the U. S. Department of the Interior and the U. S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, asking them to look for the map and turn it over if they find it.

Without the map, he said, the boundaries of the Mashantucket reservation could come into question.

Blumenthal, a Democrat, has taken the lead of the anti-Pequot forces, in part because he represents the state in a lawsuit against a federal attempt to add 165 acres to their reservation.

But Blumenthal has turned his case into a personal attack on Interior Undersecretary Kevin Gover, who once served as attorney for another Connecticut tribe seeking federal recognition. Blumenthal called for Gover to remove himself from considering a broad range of recognition petitions because of an "incurable taint" of conflict of interest.

The BIA gave Blumenthal a tart reply when it announced the agenda for a public meeting Aug. 8 and 9 on the recognition of yet two more Connecticut tribes, the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot.

Blumenthal requested the meeting as part of an effort to derail an imminent grant of federal status.

In a letter to Blumenthal, released July 27, the BIA pointedly said, "This is a technical assistance meeting. Issues such as the legality of the regulations, recusal of decision-makers and potential impact on other decisions will not be discussed."