WASHINGTON - As the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's court case against the Interior Department moves toward conclusion, the tribe has focused attention recently on Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason.
Cason is the Interior Department official who signed off on the BIA's Reconsidered Final Determination that stripped the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of its federal acknowledgement. He notified the tribe of his decision by fax on Columbus Day two years ago.
As part of its administration procedures appeal, the tribe has challenged Cason's authority to issue the RFD, contending that his action as the ''decision maker'' violated the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, because he was acting as a ''principal officer'' of the United States without being nominated by the president and approved by Congress, and the Vacancies Reform Act, which was passed to enforce the Appointments Clause.
Cason has a long history of involvement at Interior. He is among a group of current and former Interior officials from Colorado who all shared the common experience of having been advocates or lobbyists for big oil, gas, coal and mining corporations that operate on public and Indian lands, including former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Solicitor David Bernhardt, and former Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, who was indicted earlier this year on obstruction of justice charges over his involvement with criminal former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Cason has mixed reviews in Indian county. While some people have praised him as a ''good manager'' who has tried to improve education, others - especially the large land-based tribes in the West - have vehemently opposed his plan to restructure the education bureaucracy. Others question his involvement in ordering a computer system that has since been determined to have so many glitches in it that it created chaos over land leases. And most people oppose his proposal to end the federal government's trust responsibilities with Cobell plaintiffs when the case concludes.
If Indian country has given Cason mixed reviews, the environmental community has universally disapproved of him, beginning with his appointment by Norton on Aug. 9, 2001, as associate deputy secretary.
On Aug. 24, 2001, the nonprofit environmental organization Friends of the Earth issued a press release headlined ''Position created for Watt Clone at Interior,'' referring to Cason's tenure as deputy assistant secretary under former Interior Secretary James Watt during the Reagan presidency. As Watt's No. 2 man, Cason tried to stop regulations that called for modest limits on drilling in national forests and made it easier to mine in national parks.
The group also questioned the title of associate deputy secretary - a title that has not been used for more than a decade and does not appear on the agency's organizational chart.
''Apparently the Bush Administration has taken to creating new positions at Interior in order to ram more appointees with pro-extractive industries, anti-environmental interests down the throat of the American public. Like Norton and Griles, James Cason has been a soldier for moneyed interests who seek to exploit public lands for personal profit,'' Kristen Sykes, of Friends of the Earth, wrote.
From 1982 to 1985, Cason served as special assistant to the director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management, and from 1985 to 1990, he served as acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary of the Interior Department for Land and Minerals Management.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush nominated Cason for the position of Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he faced a torrent of opposition from both the Senate and the environmental community because of his extreme anti-environmental and anti-taxpayer record.
According to www.earthjustice.org, among the concerns raised during Cason's failed 1989 confirmation bid were his authorization of a rule that would make federally protected lands such as national parks, national wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas vulnerable to strip mining, and his key role in 1986 in Interior's decision to resume selling titles to federal oil and shale tracts for $2.50 an acre, far below their market value. Cason then approved granting titles to some 82,000 acres, even though Congress had made clear its intent to revise the program. One set of 17,000 acres was purchased by private developers for $42,000 and sold months later for $37 million.
R. Max Peterson, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service during the Reagan years, said: ''Mr. Cason's decisions at the Department of the Interior were uniformly bad when measured against any reasonable standard of public interest and fairness to the public which owns the public lands.''