Smith case deserves fair scrutiny

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As the influence peddling investigation involving the relationship between Wayne Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, and Phillip M. Bersinger, a Sacramento consultant, grows increasingly convoluted, it is important to consider a variety of factors.

Firstly, the case deserves the most impartial, fair and rigorous scrutiny possible. As always when investigations have the potential of damaging careers, it is proper to be very careful in reporting and assessing both the context and the particulars of the alleged compromising situation. Nevertheless, scrutiny is of the highest priority. The BIA and particularly the tribal recognition, gaming approval and other processes which the case calls into question, must be held to the highest standards of accountability and fairness. Tribal nations across the country do well to demand that all of the BIA's transactions be above reproach. Clearly they have not always been so, and this is all the more reason to demand the highest standards. We urge Interior's Office of Inspector General and the FBI to investigate vigorously and weigh the evidence of alleged influence peddling in this case.

Wayne Smith has served as an official in the California Attorney General's office and has a record of public service prior to his BIA posting. His recent troubles began when his name was used by a former business partner in letters to tribal leaders in California, soliciting business from tribal governments by claiming bluntly he could provide positive access for his new would-be clients through Smith at the BIA. The former partner, Phillip M. Bersinger, flaunted his close friendship with Smith, whom he described to tribal leaders as "the guy who actually runs the BIA and is in charge of making most of the policy and administrative decisions." Bersinger allegedly requested retainers from the tribes ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 per month to gain access and potential positive resolutions to their cases at the BIA.

The tribes in question ? Chinooks, California Valley Miwok, Buena Vista Rancheria ? to their credit, early rejected and have since denounced Bersinger's bold appeals. None of these tribes hired Bersinger, but questions remain whether others might have done so. It is "not the way we do business," the Chinook replied to Bersinger's solicitation letter.

The crass approach, so openly solicitous, was a walking disaster for Smith, who apparently traveled with Bersinger to one breakfast meeting that later generated pitches to one tribe. Shortly after accompanying Smith to a meeting with the Buena Vista financial backers and legal team on Feb. 19, Bersinger called tribal lawyers with the offer "to solve the Buena Vista tribe's problems at the BIA." The tribe thought this solicitation "was inappropriate and declined."

In another case, a letter purportedly written by Bersinger to the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is claimed to be a fraud. That letter offers, for a $250,000 retainer to disrupt a gaming compact that a potential casino competitor, the Jena Band of Choctaws, had negotiated with the state of Louisiana. This damaging allegedly fraudulent letter moves the embattled Smith to accuse his accusers of pursuing a hidden agenda, as he asserted in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today.

While some of the letters and other solicitations by Bersinger have been verified, Smith has pointed to what he claims are spurious documents also circulating. He also asserts that his negative decision on a case affecting the gaming future of the Buena Vista Rancheria "was the crux of the whole issue." He feels the attacks on his person arise out of this issue. Smith disputes the credibility of a main source of the first report on the letters, a Time Magazine story. He has said he believes the origin of the letter to the Chinooks may have had the participation of some who now express their dismay, although it is not clear that he disputes all the letters sent by Bersinger and received by the tribes. The Chinook letter and another to the California Valley Miwok Tribal Council were sent on the letterhead of a since-dissolved partnership of Bersinger & Smith.

Smith has released letters asking the FBI supervisor in Lafayette, La., and the Louisiana Attorney General to investigate the allegedly phony letter to the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. Smith stated that jointly with Secretary Norton's Deputy Chief of Staff Sue Ellen Wooldridge he requested the Inspector General's investigation into the allegations.

The tribes involved all have important cases before the BIA and Interior. As details of discussions and revelations of contacts and decisions emerge the case becomes necessarily convoluted. Charges and counter-charges continue to fly. The longer it stays in the news, the deeper and wider will be the damage to the reputation of Wayne Smith and of the BIA in general. A crisp, thorough investigation, again, is the best antidote to unnecessary damage ? to person and institution.

While Washington culture clearly tolerates and thrives on much more substantial lobbying via access (other lobbyists for American Indian issues have been far more successful and earned millions), it is a good thing for Indian people when even the appearance of impropriety comes to light and can be addressed. This case is a warning shot to lobbyists and power brokers everywhere to be careful and be certain of using completely proper and accepted methods when they do business in Indian country.