Smith case plot thickens

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Following the trail of a story like the one breaking at the BIA ? first centering on the person of Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Smith but now pin-balling around to touch on a whole supporting cast of players ? seems like the unfolding of an Indian country soap opera.

The story even has a source who claims to be the one to give Time Magazine the first tip-off on what has the looks of a classic case of influence peddling turned over on media manipulation, with a dash of old-fashioned convolution. The net of intrigue grows.

As reported last week in Indian Country Today there is little in the way of a smoking gun at this point to suggest direct use of undue influence by Smith in any of the cases he has handled at the BIA. What there certainly appears to be plenty of is poor judgment and throw-the-rock, hide-the-hand jousting.

The charge of very poor judgment in allowing or at least not seeing the implications of a friend who might use his name to solicit lobbying business in California Indian country must land squarely on Smith's shoulders. Letters sent to various tribes by Smith's former law partner, Phillip M. Bersinger, a Sacramento consultant, flaunted his close friendship with Smith, "the guy who actually runs the BIA and is in charge of making most of the policy and administrative decisions." In yet another case, Smith had taken Bersinger to at least one meeting with tribal representatives (Buena Vista Miwok, February 19), after which tribal agents reported that Bersinger solicited the tribe to represent them for $25,000 a month and a negotiated percentage of their potential casino's gross revenues.

The crass solicitation, which was refused by the tribe and might have gone unnoticed, turned into a walking disaster for Smith when the story of the letters, meeting and solicitation for seemingly exorbitant fees broke in Time Magazine on April 22. Since then, the inside political intrigue has grown rapidly.

From the beginning, some presented this story as a case that carried a sense of conspiracy. Smith claimed he was being set up. There was a notion in that direction. One source, Linda Amelia, a Chinook tribal member who told of the "exorbitant figures" being charged by Bersinger on the strength of his friendship with Smith, later admitted to reading and praising the original letter, which traveled to various figures supporting the Buena Vista Rancheria, near Sacramento.

Another letter, allegedly by Bersinger to the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, was said to be fake, perhaps sent by political enemies to disrupt the career of a public official who might rule against or at least not act on their case in a tribal matter before the BIA. Smith publicly accused recently deposed leadership of the Buena Vista Rancheria, near Sacramento, of working directly against him in the matter. Nevertheless, other letters were verified to be true, and soon would-be lobbyist Bersinger became an "ex-friend" of Smith's. It was then veteran political observer and Indian Country Today columnist, former BIA Director Kevin Gover, wondered out loud who might have given the original material in the case over to Time Magazine.

Enter Indian Country Today's source, a Democratic political campaign operative who divulged to Indian Country Today that he did in fact turn the materials over to Time, stating that he acted after receiving information from Roger Stone, a confirmed one-time operative for Atlantic City Casino mogul Donald Trump.

Through a letter sent to Indian Country Today by his attorney, Stone has disputed the claim that he instigated the Time magazine story. "Mr. Stone believes that an individual by the name of Mike Copperthite is claiming to have provided the information to Time magazine at Mr. Stone's instigation." The statement says this claim is "false in all respects."

So, is Donald Trump involved? Not that we can say. No direct evidence has emerged that Roger Stone is currently with Trump, though the New York hard-ball "King of the Deal" is known to have dealings with a California tribe, which even named its casino after him.

Enter Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who has demanded an investigation from Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Among Torricelli's constituency are many union members who work in Atlantic City and could be affected by the coming of New York State Indian casinos to the relatively nearby Catskills region. Enter U.S. Representative Doug Ose, R-Calif., who questioned Smith's potential involvement in a case involving the Pechanga Band of Luise?o Indians and the United Auburn Indian communities. In this case, a tribal lobbyist once worked with Smith in California government. Critics charge undue influence.

No doubt, Wayne Smith is in for a very bumpy ride. Every decision he has made will be thoroughly scrutinized. But he is not alone. A wide range of lobbyists always works to influence the system. Indian country lobbying and influence access are major activities now, to be guided properly for their potential benefits and watched carefully for potential corruption and damage to tribal futures.

One main point of convergence: full speed ahead to the go-get-em investigators on the case, both at Interior and at the FBI, who intend to get to the bottom of it all. Washington intrigues involving the prospect of big money at Indian casinos, and of high-powered lobbyists and even flamboyant characters are more serious and potentially damaging than they appear on their surface. It's a hardball world that can not only chew up 20-year-old careers, it can drag down the actual and perceived integrity of legitimate American Indian economic interests and tribal recognitions. Tabloid intimations follow these kinds of scandals and can manipulate public perceptions.

This case has already been enlightening for its revealing inside look at the ambitious and often frenetic world of political operatives seeking to get on board with American Indian tribes. It is an unfolding story that we intend to continue covering very closely.