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Washington dithers over Smith "personnel matter"

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WASHINGTON, D. C. -- As 5 p.m. passed on May 23, the Bush Administration appeared to be stymied in its attempt to force the departure of Wayne Smith, number two man at the BIA.

A leak in that morning's Washington Post announced that Smith had been given that deadline to resign or be fired. But as the hour struck, neither had happened. Interior Department spokesmen disappeared in to meetings all afternoon. The only formal comment of the day came from Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for BIA, who said in the morning she had been told to say she could not comment because "it was a personnel matter." Shortly after 5 p.m., Darling returned a call to Indian Country Today saying, "It's still a personnel matter."

If Smith refuses to yield to pressure from higher-ups, it would frustrate the Administration's apparent attempt to finesse a burgeoning scandal over influence peddling and political manipulation in the world of Indian affairs. Although a former business partner and friend of Smith, Philip M. Bersinger of Sacramento, Calif., wrote several letters to tribal leaders boasting of his ability to sway high-stakes BIA decisions, Smith adamantly denies that he did anything wrong. He has counter-charged that some of the documents circulated to the press were fakes and called for investigations by the FBI and Interior's Office of the Inspector General.

The FBI has since taken the lead in conducting interviews both in California and Louisiana.

Smith also charges that the attacks appear to derive from his refusal to intervene in a district-level BIA ruling that, if upheld, would deprive gaming interests of the chance to open a $150-million casino under the aegis of a faction of the four-member Buena Vista Rancheria band of Miwoks. High-level lobbyists have been busily denying that they were the source of the leaks and have pointed at their business rivals.

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The initial story, first broken by Time magazine in mid-April, focussed on several West Coast tribes, the Buena Vistas, the California Valley Miwok Tribe and the still unrecognized Chinooks. All of these received letters or visits from Bersinger, who wrote on the letterhead of the defunct partnership of Bersinger and Smith.

It is reported that other leads made investigators aware of another Sacramento lobbyist, Tracey Buck-Walsh, who once worked with Smith in California state government. Her registered clients include the United Auburn Indian Communities and the Pechanga Band of San Luiseno Indians. Buck-Walsh reported to the Clerk of the U. S. House of Representatives that she was representing them in land-into-trust applications.

The murky area surrounds the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which surprisingly won a BIA ruling scrapping a Louisiana state gaming compact with potential rivals the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians. Smith maintains that a letter purportedly from Bersinger asking $250,000 to defeat the deal is a forgery.

The American Press of Lake Charles, La., is reporting that an official in the Interior Inspector General's office says its investigation has determined that the letter is indeed a fake. The Lake Charles office of the FBI declines to go along with the finding, continues the report, saying that it is conducting a separate and parallel investigation.

With investigations still, incomplete, Washington observers were startled by the Post article stating bluntly that Smith had been asked to resign. "That's not the way these things usually work," said one D. C. lobbyist.