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Gale Norton told: Reverse recognition or be fired

WASHINGTON - Two months after the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation received federal recognition in 2004, then-Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton attended a meeting at which a powerful congressman threatened to use his influence at the White House to get her fired if she did not reverse the tribe's federal status, court documents have revealed.

The congressman was Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia, who is known in Indian country as no friend of the nations.

There were plenty of witnesses to the politically-charged threat, which took place at a meeting in late March 2004 at Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays' office. Attending were other Connecticut congressmen, who themselves had vociferously lobbied Interior and the White House against the Schaghticokes' federal recognition and, in what may reflect a case of collective projection, had accused the BIA of political influence and corruption in recognizing the tribe.

''During that meeting, Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and one of the principal opponents of Indian gaming in Congress, threatened to go the President to have Secretary Norton removed from her job if she did not reverse the Tribe's Positive Final Determination,'' attorneys for the tribe wrote in a Jan. 12 brief for the tribe's appeal of the BIA's unprecedented reversal of its own previous decision.

The appeal is filed in Connecticut federal court and names the Secretary of Interior (now Dirk Kempthorne), Interior, Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, the BIA, the Office of Federal Acknowledgement and the Interior Board of Indian Appeals as defendants. It asks the court to restore the tribe's federal acknowledgement, citing violations of due process and improper political influence by Connecticut politicians and their surrogates, including an anti-Indian group called Town Action to Save Kent, and its White House-connected lobbyist, Barbour Griffith & Rogers.

Norton tried to downplay Wolf's threat, the attorneys said, but noted that ''she returned to the Department and told her underlings about it - an action that ensured, if nothing else, that others within the Department became aware of Rep. Wolf's disapproval of the Tribe's recognition and his threat to pursue it if not reversed.''

Norton's revelation emerged in early January when she and Cason were questioned under oath by the tribe's attorneys.

As a result of their testimony, attorneys have asked the court to allow questioning of TASK and BGR, and to review documents Norton said she took home with her when she left Interior last March. Government lawyers stopped the tribal attorneys from seeing the documents.

Norton said she was actively involved in the tribe's Final Determination, which she approved in January 2004. She also stood by the BIA's decision to use state recognition in the process.

''She testified that she and the members of the staff handling that recognition decision made a considered policy judgment that, as a matter of constitutional principles of federalism, the Tribe's hundreds of years of State recognition merited important consideration in the recognition process. Ms. Norton also asserted that, to this day, she believes that she and her staff made a fair and reasonable decision in issuing the Positive Final Determination recognizing the tribe,'' the attorneys wrote.

Cason, who wrote in an affidavit that he was ''the ultimate decision maker for decisions issued under the federal acknowledgement regulations,'' signed off on the Reconsidered Final Determination that quashed the tribe's acknowledgment in October 2005.

In an argument that defied logic, the RFD rejected state recognition as valid supplemental evidence for both the Schaghticoke and Eastern Pequots, whose federal recognition was rescinded on the same day.

Cason testified - ''mistakenly,'' the attorneys said - that he had to reverse the tribe's recognition because the Interior Board of Indian Appeals had vacated the positive decision and sent it back to the BIA ''for further work and reconsideration.''

He said that he based the recognition reversal ''entirely on the recommendation and advice of [OFA Director] Lee Fleming,'' given at a meeting held on Oct. 5, 2005.

Despite the fact that the Schaghticoke decision would set a BIA precedent and be of historic importance not only to the tribe, but throughout Indian country, Cason said he did not take notes during the oral presentation.

David Bernhardt, Norton's then-deputy chief of staff; Barbara Coen, an attorney in Interior's Solicitor's Office; and others attended the meeting. Everyone participated in the deliberative process, Cason said, but he ''could not recall the names of any of the other Interior employees who reported to him and advised him during that meeting,'' the attorneys wrote.

Since Cason denied any direct outside influence, the attorneys have asked the court to allow them to interview Fleming, Bernhardt and Coen to see if any outside influences affected them.

''Just as improper political pressure directed at the final 'decision maker' will invalidate the decision, political pressure directed at agency staff members, political advisors, and legal advisors who participate in the deliberative process will also invalidate the decision,'' the attorneys said.

In arguing for further testimony, the attorneys said Fleming was ''aware of and subject to Congressional pressure aimed at overturning the Tribe's Positive Final Domination.'' They pointed to congressional hearings where Connecticut officials cited the Schaghticoke recognition in trashing the BIA's process as ''fatally flawed, lawless, and illogical,'' and where Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal asked Congress to abolish the OFA, impose a moratorium on all recognitions and investigate the BIA.

Fleming experienced direct political pressure from former Connecticut Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson, who tried to stage a press conference while giving Interior officials petitions about the Schaghticoke recognition.

''This is a PR ploy,'' Fleming said in an e-mail to colleagues. ''I view this as pressure from an elected official. The federal acknowledgement process is not a popularity contest or poll.''