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Schaghticoke files 2nd Circuit appeal for acknowledgment restoration

NEW YORK – The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is back in court seeking restoration of its federal acknowledgment.

Attorneys for STN filed a brief in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York March 6, asking the appellate court to reverse a federal district court judge’s decision dismissing the tribe’s case against the Interior Department, and to order the interior and the BIA to restore its Final Determination acknowledging STN as a federally recognized tribe.

Alternately, the brief asks for a magistrate judge or special master to determine the tribe’s federal acknowledgement or to remand the issue to the interior for further consideration.

The BIA recognized the tribe in a Final Determination Jan. 29, 2004. Twenty months later, after a relentless and coordinated political campaign by Connecticut politicians aided by an anti-Indian sovereignty group and its powerful White House-connected lobbyist, the BIA, in an unprecedented move reversed itself in a Reconsidered Final Determination and took away both the Schaghticoke and Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation’s federal acknowledgment.

The 2nd Circuit Court appeal challenges a decision rendered last August by U.S. District Court Senior Judge Peter Dorsey that denied the tribe’s Administrative Procedures Appeal of the RFD, which was filed in January 2006. That appeal claimed the reversal resulted from unlawful political influence by powerful politicians and Barbour Griffith & Rogers, the lobbying firm now known as BGR, who together violated federal laws, agency regulations, congressional ethics rules and court orders in trampling the tribes’ due process rights. Their sole motivation was to reverse STN’s federal status in order to stop the tribe from opening a casino, the documents say.

Connecticut is home to the country’s two biggest casinos – Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, which contribute around $440 million a year to the state’s general fund. A third casino would invalidate the tribal-state contracts and stop the tribes’ essential contributions to the state budget.

Although the district court appeal stretched over almost three years, culminating in the tribe’s massive 1,300-plus page motion for summary judgment, the 86-page 2nd Circuit brief focuses narrowly on issues of law. It asks: Did the district court err in denying summary judgment for the tribe and granting summary judgment for the federal defendants and interveners on the questions of (a) whether the tribe’s due process rights to a fair administrative hearing was violated by undue political influence, and (b) whether the RFD was made by an unauthorized official?

“If we had gone into the 2nd Circuit with five, six or seven of the many issues, we would have had to explain each issue for the first time for the judges, and we have a limited number of words. So we needed to provide a very clear and concise explanation of what took place over the years and the violations we felt that Judge Dorsey had definitely overlooked, and that’s what we did,” said STN Chief Richard Velky.

“This appeal to the 2nd Circuit isn’t another petition for federal recognition; it’s an appeal of the wrongs done in Dorsey’s court. It focuses on the issue of political influence, which is the core violation of law responsible for the reversal of the tribe’s federal acknowledgment.”

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The brief reviews the web of connections and communications between and among state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Congressional Delegation led by Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman and former U.S. Representatives Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson. It describes their lobbying of White House officials and federal agency decision makers, including a meeting at which former Interior Secretary Gale Norton was threatened with the loss of her job unless she reversed the Schaghticoke federal acknowledgment.

The brief documents the sudden interest former Interior Deputy Secretary Steven Griles took in the Schaghticoke case in early 2005 – an unusual concern for a deputy secretary whose duties do not normally involve federal acknowledgement petitions. Griles’ role in the STN reversal has never been clearly uncovered, but he was closely connected to former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was jailed on charges of corruption and fraud. Griles also served time on charges of obstructing justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation, which uncovered e-mails describing Griles as Abramoff’s “main man” at the interior for getting decisions made that would benefit Abramoff’s Indian clients.

The brief also details three notorious congressional hearings called ostensibly to review the federal recognition process. But the hearings turned into opportunities for the Connecticut politicians to lash out at the BIA and, in an unparalleled act of collective projection, accuse its staff of corruption and political influence for acknowledging STN.

It also recounts that Dodd and Lieberman asked Interior Inspector Earl Devaney to investigate STN’s federal acknowledgement, claiming it was corrupted by political pressure from high paid lobbyists. But when Devaney found “no evidence to support the allegation that lobbyists or representatives of STN directly or indirectly influenced BIA officials to grant federal acknowledgement to STN,” the Connecticut politicians then turned their fury on Devaney, accusing him of white washing the investigation.

Judge Dorsey himself is not let off the hook in the 2nd Circuit Appeal. The brief recounts that Dorsey replied to a letter from Governor Jodi Rell assuring her that he had extended a deadline at the request of the tribe as a legal ploy.

“It reflects a caution intended to avoid a reversal by another court which might buy a due process argument,” Dorsey wrote.

Dorsey did not file the letter with the court clerk’s office or send copies to all the parties involved in the case, as required by law.

The motion also argues that former Associate Deputy James Cason, who issued the reversal, did not have the authority to make that decision because he was not properly nominated by the president and approved by the Senate as required for that level of decision making.

Washington insiders – attorneys practicing Indian law, lobbyists, even people within the Interior Department – all casually acknowledge off the record that STN’s federal acknowledgment was reversed because of political influence, “not to mention just the blatant appearance of political influence,” Velky said.

“There isn’t anyone who’s been next to this case who wouldn’t say that STN was screwed out of its federal acknowledgment. We would hope with the new Obama administration and a new secretary at interior that STN will be given another look. We would simply ask that they now conduct an investigation of what the state did to us – the same kind of investigation they did at the request of Dodd and Lieberman. This should never have had to go to court. It should have been handled in the same way it was handled when we received our positive determination.”