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Schaghticokes seek testimony from anti-Indian group, lobbyist

KENT, Conn. - The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has asked a Washington, D.C., Superior Court judge to move forward with its lawsuit against an anti-Indian sovereignty group and its powerful Washington lobbying firm, a partnership the tribe has accused of illicitly and harmfully interfering with its federal acknowledgement.

In a motion filed in early December, the tribe asked Judge Melvin Wright to lift a stay he imposed in October and allow attorneys to take testimony under oath from members of Town Action to Save Kent and lobbyist Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.

TASK and BGR have responded with motions asking the court to continue the stay and to dismiss the tribe's lawsuit.

After the tribe received federal recognition in January 2004, a group of wealthy residents in Kent, where the tribe has a 400-acre reservation, formed TASK and hired BGR specifically to overturn the acknowledgement.

A relentless and orchestrated opposition campaign among TASK, BGR and Connecticut elected officials, and others, resulted in the Interior Department reversing both the Schaghticoke and the Eastern Pequot tribal nations' federal recognitions on Columbus Day 2005. The unprecedented action sent shock waves through Indian country, which was already rocked by the backlash from the unfolding stories of corruption and deceit among elected officials and federal appointees involved with criminal former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The tribe alleges that TASK and BGR violated federal regulations and a court order prohibiting communication with Interior officials by using improper political influence to engineer the reversal of the tribe's federal acknowledgement, harming the tribe's ''reasonably expected government-to-government relationship with the United States.'' The lawsuit asks for a jury trial to determine unspecified damages.

Wright stayed the proceedings last fall pending rulings in another legal action - the tribe's appeal of the reversal of its federal recognition. That lawsuit, filed in Connecticut federal district court, names former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason among the defendants.

Tribal attorneys want the wrongful interference lawsuit to go forward now because the tribe's request to question TASK and BGR under oath was denied by in the appeals case.

''Defendants' disregard of court orders and federal statues designed to protect the integrity of the federal tribal recognition process is a serious public concern and has resulted in a great injustice to the tribe. If this court does not allow such discovery, any illicit conduct on Defendants' part will be buried forever,'' the tribal nation's attorneys said.

TASK and BGR argued that the case against them would not be ''ripe'' to be heard until the federal court ruled on the tribe's appeal - an argument that directly contradicts their claim of exemption in the appeal case, the tribe said.

TASK also claimed that affidavits provided by TASK co-founder Ken Cooper, BGR Vice President Bradley Blakeman, and Cason attesting that there were no contacts between TASK, BGR and Interior are sufficient evidence of their innocence.

But the tribe alleges that TASK and BGR conducted a covert campaign to reverse the tribe's acknowledgement process. Hundreds of pages of documents from Freedom of Information Act requests draw an intricate web of connections between TASK/BGR, the Connecticut governor, other governors, the state attorney general, town and state officials, the White House and Interior officials - even the national anti-Indian umbrella group One Nation United.

By November 2004, the documents show, Cooper described TASK's ''beneath the radar assault'' on the tribe's recognition, and TASK co-founder Jim Perkins told Kent former First Selectman Lorie Schiesel that they were about to hire BGR because so many Washington decisions ''are not decided on their merits, but rather in backroom deals.''

By Jan. 7, 2005, Perkins wrote that BGR had ''now worked the offices of our Congressional delegates, met with key Committee Chairs in both the House and the Senate, and have had discussions with the Department of Interior as well.''

In a later deposition, Schiesel revealed that she, Perkins, Cooper and Blakeman ''met with somebody at the White House'' on May 10, 2005.

Blakeman, a top White House aide to President Bush until he joined BGR in the middle of 2003, had maintained close connections with his former White House colleagues.

The group talked about ''the impacts on Kent if it were to have a recognized tribe,'' Schiesel said, but her memory failed when asked who they talked to at the White House.

''He was a staff person in intergovernmental affairs. I should remember his name, but I don't,'' Schiesel said. Earlier in the deposition, Schiesel noted that BGR representatives had told her that ''a lot of things happen through staff.'' Schiesel did not say if the White House aide contacted Interior officials on their behalf.

The White House meeting took place a day before a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing where Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell and almost the entire state congressional delegation trashed the BIA's decision to recognize the Schaghticokes.

The next day, the Interior Board of Indian Appeals vacated the tribe's recognition and sent it back to the BIA for reconsideration.

Other documents show BGR coordinated the ''political efforts'' with the ''legal strategy'' of state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Perkins Coie, another powerful and connected Washington lobbyist.

Still other documents show that BGR wrote a letter for Rell to send to former SCIA Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accusing the BIA of ''illegal activity'' and claiming the Schaghticoke is ''an illegitimate tribe.'' BGR also offered to connect Rell with Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, Norton's mentor, as a way to get messages to Norton indirectly.

The documents show that former 12-term Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who introduced a bill to terminate the tribe, recommended BGR to TASK. And on Sept. 14, 2005, a month before the BIA's decision to rescind the Schaghticoke federal recognition, Johnson spent $2,100 on a party for BGR in Washington.

TASK also planned to engage the help of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to use his influence at the White House to overturn the tribe's recognition, according to e-mails.

A status conference on the tribe's lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 26 and will be open to the public.