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Schaghticoke lawsuit takes on ‘most powerful’ D.C. lobbyist

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HARTFORD, Conn. – The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is attacking one of the biggest names in Washington lobbying, accusing it of engineering the reversal of its hard-won federal recognition.

In a civil lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the tribe charges the Barbour Griffith & Rogers lobbying firm with harmful interference with its recognition, which it gained on Jan. 29, 2004, and lost again on Oct. 12, 2005. The firm was working for residents of the affluent town of Kent, which borders the tribe’s 270-year-old reservation. The suit also names the local group Town Action to Save Kent, also called TASK, and its leader, Kenneth Cooper.

The suit alleges that TASK and the Barbour firm broke federal regulations and a federal judge’s order to have “secret communications” with Interior Department officials in opposition to Schaghticoke recognition. It described only one such contact in detail, a previously reported March 17, 2004, meeting between Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The meeting drew a reprimand from a federal judge who had intervened to speed up the decades-long recognition process. But Schaghticoke Chief Richard Velky has indicated on previous occasions that he suspects White House-level pressure on the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which overturned the original recognition.

According to the suit, by November 2004, TASK had begun to coordinate a “‘beneath the radar’ assault” on the recognition decision. At the suggestion of U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who represented northwestern Connecticut, the group hired the Barbour firm for “secret ‘backroom deals’” with Interior officials.

The firm was founded in 1991 by Republican insider Haley Barbour, along with two colleagues from the George H.W. Bush administration. Barbour went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee during most of the ’90s. He is now governor of Mississippi. By 2001, after the inauguration of George W. Bush, Fortune magazine called the firm the most powerful lobbyist in Washington.

The Barbour Griffith & Rogers Web site states that it is “effective at stopping or changing harmful policy before it can take effect.”

The suit charges that TASK intended to use the firm’s contacts to “subvert the integrity of the acknowledgment process.” The complaint says: “Instead of seeking to avoid the spectre of corruption, Defendants embraced it. Throughout the process, they publicly boasted about their ability to use their considerable political influence, and the access to decision-makers that such influence provided, to sabotage the process.”

The tribe is seeking unspecified punitive damages based on the millions of dollars of federal benefits it would have been eligible to receive after federal acknowledgment. The suit would not affect its recognition status.

“In our opinion,” said Velky in announcing the action, “the residents of Connecticut would want to know if a handful of wealthy, powerful individuals hijacked a federal process to serve their own purposes and agenda. Turning a blind eye to their actions only furthers the culture of corruption in our state and federal governments.”

The Barbour firm has so far played a tangential role in the Jack Abramoff tribal lobbying scandals. It represented the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in its bid for a Louisiana casino that was vehemently opposed by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.

The Coushatta Tribe paid Abramoff $1.76 million in a successful campaign to reverse Interior’s initial approval of the Jena Band project. Abramoff’s ally, Ralph Reed, Republican activist and former head of the Christian Coalition, organized a grass-roots campaign of religious leaders to fight the Jena Band casino, fueled in part, according to internal e-mails, by personal animosity to Barbour.

The revelation that the campaign against the Jena Band casino was ultimately sponsored by another gaming tribe to protect its market seriously undercut Reed’s credentials as a religious activist. The scandal is widely credited for causing his defeat July 18 in Georgia’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor.