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BIA Official Blames Firing on Casino Politics

28 May 2002

SACRAMENTO, California – As reported by the Associated Press: "The No. 2 official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs says he was fired due to the political influence of a tiny California Indian tribe that wants to build a $150 million casino near Sacramento.

"The three-member tribe counters that it was Wayne Smith who acted wrongly, by arranging a meeting with a former business partner who allegedly promised he could solve the Buena Vista tribe's problems at the BIA in exchange for $25,000 a month and a negotiated percentage of the casino's projected gross venues.

"Smith, the U.S. Department of Interior's deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs, was fired Friday amid charges of influence-peddling that now reach to the White House itself.

"Smith sought an investigation by the FBI and Interior Department's inspector general this spring amid allegations that he arranged meetings with two West Coast tribes for his friend and former business partner, Philip Bersinger.

"Smith alleged that politically connected backers of the Buena Vista Me-Wuk tribe were upset that he did not immediately reverse the BIA's initial ruling handing control of the tribe to a blood descendant who opposes the $150 million casino.

"…In a May 16 letter, Smith complained to a senior Interior Department official that the White House was making `highly inappropriate' calls urging him to reverse the decision. He was soon placed on administrative leave, then fired, effective Tuesday.

"…[He] asked the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia to investigate what his attorney, Nancy Luque, alleged was `an improper use of influence by the White House and those connected to Republican politics and reprisals against Mr. Smith for reporting that influence.'

"…Tribal representatives said Smith arranged to bring Bersinger to a meeting weeks after the BIA had ruled regarding the tribe's leadership. A few weeks after that, Bersinger allegedly made his offer to a tribal attorney, touting his access and influence to Interior and Indian Affairs because of his relationship with Smith.

"The tribe since has cooperated fully with both the FBI and Interior Department investigations, said Buena Vista spokeswoman Jean Munoz…"

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