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Schaghticoke Tribal Nation seeks restoration of federal acknowledgement

Part one

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Twenty months after filing an appeal of the BIA's unprecedented decision to strip the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of its federal acknowledgement, the tribe has filed a motion for summary judgment - a massive document in support of its claim that the loss of its federal status resulted from unlawful political influence by powerful politicians and a White House-connected lobbyist, who violated federal laws, agency regulations, congressional ethics rules and court orders in trampling the tribes' due process rights.

The motion, filed Sept. 24, asks Senior Judge Peter Dorsey of the U.S. District Court in New Haven to vacate the BIA's Reconsidered Final Determination of Oct. 12, 2005, and restore the tribe's federal acknowledgement, which the agency issued in a Final Determination on Jan. 29, 2004.

The Final Determination was overturned after an appeal by the state and a campaign of opposition by Connecticut's elected officials and the powerful lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.

''Our motion thoroughly documents unprecedented, illegal influence by some of Connecticut's highest elected officials and Bush White House insiders to do what's never been done before - take back a federal recognition,'' STN Chief Richard Velky said in a prepared statement.

''It contains new information that clearly shows how a coordinated backdoor campaign, operating far from public view, both broke the law and effectively stole our rightful recognition. Having witnessed Connecticut political leaders' disregard for the rule of law, our tribe now looks to the court to restore fairness.''

The new information contained in a 132-page motion and 1,200 pages of exhibits of e-mails, letters, agency notes, official records, depositions and other print materials secured largely through Freedom of Information Act requests and, in the case of the job performance evaluations of Interior Department Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, through a federal judge's ruling that withholding the documents violated the FOI Act.

According to the motion, STN attorneys' three major arguments why the Reconsidered Final Determination should be vacated are:

"The Reconsidered Final Determination was not only the product of unlawful political influence, but also was tainted by the appearance of impropriety which, as a matter of law, is enough in itself to void the decision;

"Cason, the self-described ''decision-maker'' who withdrew the tribe's federal status, was illegally appointed and had no authority by law to make such a decision; and

"The Reconsidered Final Determination was unlawfully arbitrary and capricious, disregarding instructions from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, precedent, regulations, expert testimony and logic.

Any one of the arguments is sufficient to vacate the Reconsidered Final Determination, attorneys wrote.

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The campaign of political influence, the motion says, included ex parte meetings and communications with former Interior Secretary Gale Norton in violation of federal regulations and a court order prohibiting parties to the tribe's petition from contacting federal decision-makers without prior notice; congressional hearings where the Final Determination, which was still pending with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, was publicly attacked in the presence of the BIA and Office of Federal Acknowledgement staff who had worked on it for more than three years; meetings and correspondence with the White House; and pressure from the White House on Interior decision-makers.

Connecticut Republican Rep. Chris Shays, former Republican Reps. Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons, Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, Gov. Jodi Rell and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal collectively and individually urged Norton, the White House, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the IBIA, and even Dorsey to overturn the Schaghticokes' federal acknowledgment, the motion says.

On April 1, 2004, for example, Shays, who played a fiercely aggressive role in attacking the tribe's acknowledgement, met privately with President Bush's Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Margaret Spellings (now secretary of Education) to seek the president's help in convincing Interior to reverse the tribe's recognition, the motion says.

By then, Shays and other Connecticut officials had already met with Norton multiple times, including a heated encounter in which an angry Rep. Frank Wolfe of Virginia threatened to ask the White House to fire her if she didn't reverse the tribe's acknowledgement, according to the motion.

Shays could not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Soon after Shays' White House meeting, former Principal Deputy Secretary of Indian Affairs Aurene Martin, who had issued the tribe's positive Final Determination, and Interior Solicitor David Bernhardt, who was then a counselor to Norton, were summoned to the White House to meet with Spellings and other top-level White House staff to discuss the Final Determination.

Bernhardt, who had not been involved in the Final Determination's decision-making process, soon ''began to take a more active role in the Department's recognition decision,'' and to express his unhappiness with the Final Determination, the motion says. He attended other White House meetings with senior Interior officials but not with Martin, who had been criticized by Connecticut officials, and was increasingly excluded from discussions about the tribe, the motion says.

Bernhardt was advised by his attorney not to answer any questions about the White House meetings during a deposition.

The ''backdoor'' campaign of opposition took place against the backdrop of the unfolding Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and even drew the attention one of the scandal's top players - former Interior Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, who is currently serving a prison sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to Congress about his role as Abramoff's ''go-to man'' at Interior.

Although not normally involved in recognition issues, Griles specifically requested to be ''fully briefed'' about the Schaghticoke petition, according to tribe's motion.

(Continued in part two)