HARTFORD, Conn. - Still seeking Kevin Gover's fingerprints on a smoking gun, foes of his decision to recognize two Pequot tribes are making the most of new details from a two-day BIA hearing on their petition.
But former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Gover himself said the evidence showed only that he reached a more informed conclusion as he studied the case. "I'll certainly say I changed my mind a couple of times."
The hearings July 10 and 11 might be the closing stage of a long battle against recognition of the two casino-ready tribes, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told a handful of reporters who called at his office after listening to the sessions on a speaker phone. He said his office would file its final comments in the recognition procedure by the deadline a month away.
Although Gover was the target of Blumenthal's charges of improper influence, the Pawnee lawyer, now in private practice, said he would have nothing to do with the final decision, due this fall. "That's for Neal McCaleb to decide."
As head of the BIA, Gover gave a preliminary yes in March 2000 to the decades-old petition of the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot tribes. Final approval was delayed by opposition from three neighboring towns and Blumenthal. North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston peppered the BIA with briefs and freedom of information requests and then sued it in federal court for its alleged lack of response.
Officials of the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgement and Research conducted the two-day telephone conference with Blumenthal's office and tribal representatives in response to a court order. U. S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello also imposed a timetable for completing the recognition process.
In one of the few new details to emerge, BAR researcher Virginia DeMarce said that Gover had decided against the petitions in February 2000 but changed his mind a month later. When he directed a "proposed positive finding" in March, as was previously reported, he overruled BAR staff findings that both tribes had failed to satisfy two of the seven recognition criteria.
Blumenthal cited Gover's switch as evidence that the "recognition process is grievously flawed."
Without citing any further evidence, a local paper attributed the delay to "political influence brought by casino backers."
But sources close to one tribe said it was not aware Gover had changed his mind; it knew only that the decision was delayed a month in which it waited nervously.
Gover told ICT he reversed himself because he had studied the petitions in more detail. "We couldn't make up our minds," he said about staff deliberations.
The final decision, he emphasized, was his alone to make. He said he had to indicate his leaning to staff members because it was their job to draft the lengthy reports on the findings. (The reports on the two tribes each run to 53 pages.)
During the hearings DeMarce emphatically rejected suggestions from Assistant Attorney General Daniel Schaefer that she was subjected to improper direct or indirect influence on her research. "I have not experienced anything to that effect," she said.
Gover overruled the BAR staff on two criteria requiring continuous existence of the tribes as political and social units. During the hearings, DeMarce and BAR historian George Roth said that Gover argued that gaps in the evidence were made up by the fact of Connecticut's continuous recognition of the Eastern Pequot tribe, the root of the two modern tribes. Although the two current tribes have feuded bitterly, they share the Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington, established by the state in 1683.
Both tribes have financial backers with casino plans. The Eastern Pequots are backed by David Rosow, a golf course and ski resort developer. The Paucatuck Eastern Pequots acknowledge their ultimate support comes from Donald Trump, the Atlantic City casino operator known for his vigorous opposition to American Indian casinos in New York state.
In an impromptu meeting with the reporters covering the hearing, Blumenthal said he was concerned about possible improper ex parte contacts between decision-makers at the BIA and the tribes.