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Wayne Smith replies to accusations

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. ? Embattled BIA official Wayne Smith accused his accusers of pursuing a hidden agenda, in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today.

Smith, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs and number two man at the BIA, is under intense scrutiny since reports in various publications, including ICT, revealed that a former business partner Philip M. Bersinger had sent letters to various tribes promising to exploit the connection for large fees. Although several of the letters have been verified, Smith said that spurious documents were also circulating. He said he had asked the FBI supervisor in Lafayette, La., and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub of that state to investigate one apparently phony letter, referring to a Louisiana state gaming compact.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton was backing him "absolutely," Smith said. He and Norton's deputy chief of staff Sue Ellen Wooldridge had gone jointly to Interior's Inspector General to request an investigation, he said.

Smith said he believed the rash of stories about the alleged influence peddling of his "ex-friend" grew out of a dispute over the rightful leadership of the tiny Buena Vista Rancheria Miwok Indians in Ione, Calif. The District Superintendent of the BIA recently rejected the claim of the Potts family, which has financial backing for a $150 million casino from the Louisiana-based Cascade Entertainment Group. Instead, the district official upheld an anti-casino claimant.

Speaking by telephone from San Diego, where he was attending a meeting of the Joint Interior/Tribal Leaders Task Force on the Indian trust fund, Smith said he had refused to overturn the District Superintendent's decision, sending it instead through the statutory appeals procedure.

His action, he said, "obviously didn't make the Buena Vista Rancheria people very happy." According to a published report, he said, the casino backers had spent $10 million supporting the Potts family claim. He said the negative decision "was the crux of the whole issue."

Smith also attacked the credibility of a main source of a Time Magazine story that was the first report on the letters. Sacramento businesswoman Linda Amelia, a Chinook tribal member, told Time that a letter from Bersinger to the Chinooks boasting of "his tremendous access and influence" was so "bare-faced" that she thought it might be an FBI sting. Instead, Smith said he believes the origin of this letter may have had the participation of those who now express their dismay.

This letter and another to the California Valley Miwok Tribal Council were sent on the letterhead of the since-dissolved partnership of Bersinger & Smith, and they have been verified by officers of the tribe. But Smith is demanding investigation of another letter on the same letterhead that he calls fraudulent. Addressed to Vice Chairman William Worfel of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and dated February 15, it repeats paragraphs from the first two describing Bersinger's close friendship with Smith. It then offers to disrupt a gaming compact that a potential casino competitor, the Jena Band of Choctaws, had negotiated with the state of Louisiana.

After noting that the Jena Band had retained the services of former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour (misspelling his name as "Barber") to intercede with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the letter purports to offer Bersinger's influence with Smith to "effectuate the rejection of the Jena Band compact." Calling this effort a "heavy lift", the letter asks for a $250,000 advance payment.

Smith forwarded a declaration from Bersinger, signed April 11, stating "under penalty of perjury": "Specifically, I never wrote a letter, dated February 15, 2002, address to Mr. William G. Worfel, Vice-Chairman, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana." The Coushatta, he added, "said they never received this letter."

In forwarding this letter to FBI supervisor Richard McHenry in Lafayette and Louisiana Attorney General Ieyoub, Smith asked them to "investigate this matter and, if appropriate, prosecute the responsible person or persons accordingly."

"Although no threats of extortion have been received by me to date, the obvious implications of this kind of letter must be taken very seriously," he wrote.

Smith also repeated his statement that he had no pending official business involving the California Valley Miwok Tribe. Although the tribe wrote to Norton on April 24 asking her to remove Smith from consideration of its Tribal Constitution and Restoration issues, Smith said none of these were legally before him. The group, he said, was not federally recognized and had not even submitted a petition for recognition to the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research, the proper administrative channel. As an unrecognized tribe, he said, its constitution was no concern of the BIA.

"They might as well ask me to make them the Pope," he said.