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Pending recognition decision for Juaneno stirs waters in Washington lobbying pool

Part one

WASHINGTON - Despite a court case that is casting a sharp light on its alleged role in the denial of federal recognition to the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut, the lobbying firm of Barbour Griffith and Rogers retains a gold-plated list of grade A lobbying clients and close connections to the current presidential administration, Republican members of Congress and federal agency officials, in the estimation of many members of the Washington lobbying corps.

So when BGR registered with the Secretary of the Senate April 30 to work on ''recognition and designation'' of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians in California as a federally recognized tribe, ripples of interest spread to some of the now fairly numerous Washington-area lobbying shops that work on Indian-specific issues. The Juaneno are currently up for final consideration by the BIA and Interior Department as a federally recognized tribe; the so-called 180-day period for a decision is in its third extension. The timing of BGR's appearance at the tail end of a 25-year recognition process is sensitive enough that lobbyists at three separate firms spoke only on condition of anonymity. But for each, it raised ''many red flags,'' a phrase that appears as a quotation in a recent Bloomberg news service report on Haley Barbour's influence, activities, investments and compensations as the incumbent governor of Mississippi. Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was a BGR founding partner. The Bloomberg reportage, while acknowledging that Barbour brought a breadth of benefits to his state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also featured contradictory accounts of his monetary relationship with his former firm.

One question in Washington, ambiguously answered by the lobbying registration form, is whether BGR is lobbying for or against Juaneno recognition. Another is who must be paying BGR - surely not the client named on the lobbying registration form, Hard Count Inc. of Austin, Texas, a grass-roots advocacy group; BGR's range of rates for lobbying services is $15,000 to $100,000 per month. A third question is the extent to which prospective gaming revenues drive BGR's commitment - because ancestral Juaneno territory in current Orange County, Calif., extends ''a little into Los Angeles County,'' in the words of vice chairman Fran Yorba. The Juaneno, if federally recognized as a tax-exempt tribal government, are widely held to have potential for drawing from the nation's most populous untapped gaming market.

Billy Horton, president of Hard Count, had an answer to all three questions. ''I haven't made a cent on this. ... I haven't kept track of what I've spent out of my own pocket, but it's a lot.'' Hard Count will get paid only if the Juaneno Band gets recognized and establishes itself to the extent that it has some resources, he said.

Horton said the process is too far along for direct personal lobbying to be of much help. ''We haven't had the ability to do anything ... but to make sure we make some points. We're trying to make sure the BIA has some perspective on the original petitioning group. ... All we've basically done is tried to guide them in the process.'' Otherwise, about all anyone can do now is send advisory letters to the BIA, he said.

Many others are doing as much, including Anthony Rivera, current chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, which Yorba also serves and which contends it is the original petitioning group. The prospect of high-stakes casino gaming in the vicinity of Los Angeles has also led many local interests to monitor the Juaneno application. But only BGR can send letters to Republican officials from BGR.

As for which side BGR is on, Horton said it is with him on the side of the 1982 applicants for federal recognition, case number 84(a) in the Interior/BIA recognition process. He described the 84(a) applicants as a nongaming group of Juaneno associated with David Belardes.

After Belardes' chairmanship of the band ended in the 1990s, subsequent factions filed recognition applications and Belardes set up office as representing the legitimate Juaneno Band, Horton said. He said the factions filed for federal recognition in hopes of becoming gaming tribes.

''So the question is, is the BIA going to do the thing it ought to do ... make the right determination instead of being manipulated by big gaming interests. ... I think the people at the BIA are good people. ... This ought to be about the tribe and the right reasons to be recognized. It ought to not be about gaming. Unfortunately in Washington, the moneyed interests get in front of people ... and sometimes decisions are made because they don't have any other information.''

Yorba gave a different account. Belardes is an interested party in 84(a), but its federally acknowledged spokesperson is the chairman of the current and continuous Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, Anthony Rivera, and the band is not a faction, Yorba explained. ''We have a constitution,'' based on traditionalism. ''We look back to what our ancestors had done ... and we look to our elders for that information.''

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Yorba denied that the Acjachemen Juaneno organized under Rivera for gaming purposes. The band's priority, post-recognition, would be economic development, she said. Of casino gaming she added, ''I wouldn't say it's a goal. It's an option.''

Horton has a similar attitude. He acknowledged that he might make some money from Juaneno gaming out of his advocacy for the 84(a) application, if only a long time from now. ''But that's not why I'm doing this.''

Horton, as president of Hard Count, and Belardes, associated with the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians but without a title on a copy of the purported signature page, in January signed an agency services agreement that would commit future revenues of the band, as represented by client Belardes, to Hard Count, a client of BGR. Under terms of the agreement, Hard Count would receive a percentage of gross proceeds from all gaming operations and related facilities. ''In consideration of Hard Count's Governmental Affairs Services and Gaming Services, Client shall pay Hard Count the Fee ... defined as six percent (6%) of Client's annual gross revenues from gaming operations and related gaming associated facilities ... from and after the date ... of Client as an Federal Recognized Indian tribe by the BIA and shall continue for five (5) years after the date ... gaming operations owned or operated by Client or on Client's said property generates at least $10,000,000 in gross revenue annually. ... Both parties agree that the Fee will have been earned by Hard Count upon Client's designation as a Federal Recognized Indian tribe by the BIA.''

According to Horton, he and BGR came by their interest in the Juaneno altruistically. An uncle of his, whom he described as an Indian associated with the Cherokee of Oklahoma, approached him about helping the Juaneno gain federal recognition. Horton's own personal connections, and those of his staff at Hard Count, recommended BGR as a Washington guide, advising Hard Count and Belardes' group as to tactics within the recognition process.

''We kind of told them our story, showed them our stuff, and they were compelled to help us.''

Horton categorically asserted that BGR is not a party to any contract for payment from prospective Juaneno casino earnings.

Similarly, the Washington-area lobbyists interviewed for the current article said they have not signed contracts with the Juaneno or the Acjachemen that call for payment from future casino revenues.

Rivera did not follow through on Yorba's offer of an interview with him, and he could not be reached subsequently by telephone or through another third-party appointment.

BGR's deep bench of former cabinet officials did not respond to telephone voice messages.

(Continued in part two)