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Gover blasts back at critic, defends Mashantucket identity

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WASHINGTON - For Kevin Gover, it's getting personal.

The assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs is drawing such intense fire from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal it's beginning to look more like an epic feud than a policy dispute.

Blumenthal took his attacks to BIA turf Aug. 8 and 9 in a capital meeting on federal recognition of two small Connecticut tribes, the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Indians.

Blumenthal is calling for a moratorium on all federal recognition, saying the entire process needs to be reformed. But he also accuses Gover of a massive conflict of interest.

In recent weeks he wrote two letters calling on Gover's superiors to remove the BIA chief from all Connecticut recognition cases and to reverse the preliminary approval for the Pequot bands.

In an exclusive interview Gover showed his annoyance. "This is the way some lawyers choose to do things. They like to attack the decision-maker instead of attacking the decision.

"My attitude is, 'Put up or shut up.' If he's got any evidence, let's see it."

Gover added the irony of the personal attacks was that he, in all likelihood, wouldn't be in office when the final decision is made on the two Pequot bands. As he has said in the past, he plans to step down when the new administration comes in next year.

Like some Connecticut observers, Gover said he suspects the attorney general, the highest ranking Democrat in state office, is laying the groundwork for a political move up.

"What this suggests to me is that it's not about trying to get an appropriate outcome. It's about some political need he has in his home state."

Blumenthal's main argument is that Gover once represented the Golden Hill Paugussetts in their federal recognition bid. The state-recognized band has announced it wants to build a casino in the depressed city of Bridgeport, but angered thousands of Connecticut homeowners by threatening land claims suits as a pressure tactic in the recognition effort.

"I was their lawyer," Gover said. "I represented them for about a year, a year and a half, on their petition for federal recognition."

The petition was denied by the BIA in 1996. "That's the hell of it. I lost that case. That wasn't my greatest moment of lawyering."

Gover already recused himself from the Paugussett case which is back before the BIA. "Of course I'm not allowed to rule on the Golden Hill petition. I have not. I will not.

"By the same token, I am allowed to rule on other petitions."

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Here is the nub of the dispute with Blumenthal who argues that Gover's work with the Paugussetts puts and "incurable taint" on any decision he makes on other Connecticut tribes such as the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots.

Blumenthal says Gover shouldn't be allowed to influence any case that might set a favorable precedent for the Paugussetts.

Gover replies that Blumenthal is demanding impossible conditions. "The standard he's trying to create would debilitate any assistant secretary," he said. "You want your secretary to be familiar with Indian issues."

In fact Gover said Blumenthal is asking for a stricter standard than any used by the federal government. "The proper authorities have replied to him, saying that. They tell him it's not the standard."

Blumenthal's response has been to go over Gover's head, most recently writing to the solicitor of the Interior. "He's going to keep kicking that dog until it stops barking," Gover said.

Part of Blumenthal's complaint comes from a report in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant that Gover overruled staff in the Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research in granting the two Pequot tribes preliminary approval. Documents, which Gover said were leaked, show he ruled that gaps in two of the criteria could be filled by giving weight to the state's recognition of the tribes.

Gover defended his action as a common-sense way of showing that the tribes had a continuous existence. "There was a period of time when documentation was rather sparse. The relation with the state of Connecticut suggests that kind of continuity, so it mattered."

Furthermore, he said without apology, it is his job to make those policy calls. "The BAR staff don't make the decision. I do. It's my opinion that matters in the end. That's what it means to get appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate."

Beyond these technical questions looms the sharp growth of anti-Indian feeling in Connecticut which Gover said he finds highly alarming.

"A lot of it seems to have arisen since the publication of that book," he said, referring to the attack on the legitimacy of the Mashantucket Pequots in "Without Reservation" by Jeff Benedict.

"If you think there isn't an agenda behind that book, you're badly mistaken," Gover said. "The same group that was the source behind that book is clearly the folks who were attacking the Mashantuckets who have an anti-casino, anti-Indian agenda."

Gover vehemently repudiated Benedict's argument that Mashantucket federal recognition was flawed. "The Mashantuckets are who they say they area. They are the descendants of the eastern Pequots."

Even worse, he said, was Benedict's call to withdraw their federal status. "These people are trying to revive the idea of termination. This government will never again be in the business of taking federal recognition away from tribes.

"To hear that idea come forward is something all tribes should be alarmed about. If they start picking off the tribes, we'll all be in trouble."

He said western tribes should rally to the support of the Pequots. "We better admit that an attack on them is an attack on us.

"We just can't have this Indian bashing."