Investigation continues as Smith leaves

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WASHINGTON ? Probes into the influence-peddling allegations surrounding Wayne Smith are expanding, even though the former number two man at BIA has been forced out, a source close to the investigation told Indian Country Today on May 30.

"It is a very, very important investigation," the source said.

In addition to a probe by the Inspector General's Office of the Interior Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting an intensive look at Smith's former business and government-service associates and their clients in the Sacramento, Calif., region. "That's an important part of the investigation," said the source.

Smith's forced exit from the BIA has not only not quieted a current of insinuations and rumor, it has turned them toward higher levels of the government, and even the White House.

His lawyer, Nancy Luque, is vigorously pointing in the direction of senior members of the Bush Administration. In a statement to Indian Country Today on May 24, she said that Smith had invoked the Whistle-blower Statute, giving protection to federal employees who revealed wrong-doing, and that he had gone to the U. S. Attorney In the District of Columbia to launch a corruption investigation of the BIA and even higher levels of the government.

With this escalation, the Smith Affair threatens to become one of the major scandals of the still young Bush Administration.

In her statement, left on the voice mail of an Indian Country Today reporter the evening of May 24, she said, "We had filed for whistle-blower protection yesterday (May 23) because I felt that Wayne Smith was being inappropriately dealt with because he had brought to the attention of his superiors in Norton's office that he was being unduly pressured by the White House in connection with the Buena Vista situation and that shortly after that he was essentially told he had to leave.

"I also went to the [U.S.] Attorney's office for the District of Columbia and asked that they initiate an investigation into corruption at the Department of the Interior and specifically in the BIA. However I think it goes higher than that."

The reference to Buena Vista reflects Smith's insistence that the accusations of influence peddling that have plagued him for the past six weeks derived from the financial backers of the pro-casino faction of the four-person Buena Vista Rancheria Miwok band near Sacramento. The family pushing plans for a $150-million casino lost control of the tribe through a Central California Agency BIA ruling that Smith refused to overrule. The decision was upheld in mid-May by the BIA Pacific Coast Regional Office and now goes before the BIA appeal board.

News of Smith's dismissal leaked out shortly after 6 p.m. on May 24. In response to a call from Indian Country Today, Nedra Darling of the BIA public affairs office read a brief statement. "Wayne R. Smith came to the Department of the Interior on Sept. 6, 2001. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs. He will be leaving federal service on Tuesday, May 28, 2002."

Darling let the statement speak for itself. "Basically it's still a personnel matter," she said.

Smith had already made it clear he would fight his removal. Luque told the Washington Post on May 22, "Mr. Smith has always acted with the highest ethical standards and in the public interest. Any action taken against him will be vigorously and exhaustively contested." Her statement appeared in the May 23 article by Ellen Nakashima that broke the news he had been asked to resign.

In an off-shot of the scandal, the California Valley Miwok Tribe filed a suit late May 24 against Interior Secretary Gale Norton and BIA head Neal McCaleb to compel its recognition as a "restored tribe" and to force the U.S. to take land into trust on its behalf.

The tribe was one of several California tribes approached by Smith's former business partner Philip M. Bersinger with claims that Bersinger could influence decisions of his old friend and colleague from state government.

Smith, said Bersinger in a letter to tribal adviser Tiger Paulk, "is the guy who actually runs the BIA and is in charge of making most of its policy and administrative decisions."

After rejecting Bersinger's services, the tribe aggressively demanded that Smith be recused from any decisions involving it. In a letter to Norton, chairwoman Silvia Burley wrote, "We do not believe that any matter involving our tribe can go through the Assistant Secretary's Office without being impacted by Mr. Smith's prejudice and retaliation."

In a subsequent letter and now the lawsuit, the California Valley Miwoks (formerly known as the Sheep Ranch of Me-Wuk Indians of California) complained that Smith had mistakenly said in an interview with Indian Country Today that they were not federally recognized.

In the suit, the Miwoks complain that Norton had not answered their letters.