WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Guessing games abound among the Capitol's Indian power-brokers over the source of the influence-peddling stories that have sparked highly active investigations of Interior's Deputy Assistant Secretary ? Indian Affairs Wayne Smith and his former partner, Philip M. Bersinger. Indian Country Today now knows a good part of the answer.
The affair began in mid-April with a Time Magazine story quoting letters from Bersinger to potential clients boasting of his ability to influence decision by Smith, the number-two man at BIA and the head of day-to-day administration. The charge fell short of producing a smoking, red-hot pistol with powder marks on Smith's hand; no solid evidence indicates that Smith made decisions based on payments to Bersinger. But agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation are reported to be vigorously pursuing leads in Sacramento, home of Bersinger's business, among the California tribes he approached, and in Louisiana, among members of the Coushatta tribal council and employees of its Grand Casino Coushatta.
Smith himself blamed the leak to Time on interests angered by his refusal to intervene in a decision hurting prospects for a Buena Vista Rancheria tribal casino near Sacramento. Fingers have pointed at John Peebles, the high-powered partner in the Indian law firm of Monteau and Peebles, who represents the faction of the Buena Vista tribe committed to building a casino.
But Peebles vigorously denies it. In a brief on-the-record statement, he told ICT, "No one from this firm has talked to any press."
Other fingers point at Republican activist Roger J. Stone, Jr., formerly a close associate of casino mogul Donald Trump. Stone is seeking to assemble casino interests of his own. He declined to respond on the record until he was named on the record as the source.
But the source who brought the Bersinger documents to Time reporter Michael Weisskopf has identified himself to Indian Country Today. He is neither Peebles nor Stone. In fact he comes from a background of liberal Democrat politics. But he has a record of speaking publicly for tribes he feels are abused by Washington power brokers. And he says forthrightly he acted at the instigation of Roger Stone.
A forthright explanation of motivation is still not available, however. Stone was so closely tied to Trump in the past that two years ago they split payment of a record fine levied by the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying. As reported by ICT at the time, Stone's company, Ikon Public Affairs, paid $100,000 and Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. paid $50,000 of a $250,000 civil penalty for a series of ads attacking the St. Regis Mohawk tribal council. (The remaining $100,000 was levied against a front group, the New York Institute for Law and Society, which signed the ads. All of the fines were paid by checks drawn on the account of the Greenberg Traurig law firm.)
No evidence shows any current connection between Stone and Trump, however. But supporters of Smith point to another possible connection to Trump. The first political response to the Time story came from U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., himself a former target of federal investigators. Torricelli called on Interior Secretary Gale Norton for a full investigation of the Smith affair. People on both sides of the case note that Torricelli is very close to unions representing Atlantic City gaming workers, who fear potential competition from plans for Indian casinos in New York State.
As speculation continues, investigators are pursuing another front in the story, a Sacramento lobbyist named Tracey Buck-Walsh who once worked for Smith in California government. U.S. Representative Doug Ose, a junior Republican from the Sacramento area, wrote a letter May 2 to BIA head Neal McCaleb asking if a possible relation between Buck-Walsh and Smith had influenced decisions affecting the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians or the United Auburn Indian Communities. Buck-Walsh filed lobbying registrations with the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 15 to represent both tribes on applications to take land into trust.
The spotlight is also turning on the highly effective Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has given several tribes entr?e to conservative Republican circles in the U.S. Congress. A recent New York Times article reports that Abramoff has received over $1 million in fees in the last six months of 2001 from the Mississippi Band of Choctaws and $1,760,000 from the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. At the beginning of last year, Abramoff left his previous lobbying firm to join the Washington office of Greenberg Traurig.
Nedra Darling, spokesman for the BIA, said that Smith was unable to make a public statement on the source of the story. "The case is under review," she said. "It's being investigated closely by our own Inspector General and the FBI as well."
She did comment on a number of anonymous faxes that have been circulating. "Based on the questionable faxes we received, this is not Indian people doing it. Usually when Indian people voice their opinion, they let you know who they are and how to get back to them.
"Basically, we just look forward to getting to the bottom of this."