Cronyism sank effort by Schaghticoke

by Rick Green
The Hartford Courant

We know about all the press conferences, the showboat congressional hearings and the charges of corruption that dominated the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s long, unsuccessful fight for federal recognition.

Now, as the Schaghticokes, whose reservation is in Kent, make a final pitch to revive their case in federal court, it’s clear powerful forces were at work behind the scenes. Led by our congressional delegation, opponents went straight to the top in their effort to undo the tribe’s federal recognition.

In the spring of 2004, Margaret Spellings, then President Bush’s domestic policy adviser and now secretary of education, along with other senior aides, began a series of meetings with tribal opponents, including U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, according to documents filed during September in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

That’s a top, trusted aide to the president, working with Schaghticoke opponents.

The tribal recognition process is required, by law, to be free from politics. A series of federal court rulings support this.

By the fall of 2005 the Schaghticoke recognition and that of another Connecticut tribe, the Eastern Pequots, was revoked, the first time the government reversed a decision like this.

There’s no proof Spellings put the fix in. But we know three loud voices against the Schaghticokes – Shays, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons – were Republicans facing tough re-election races for their House seats in both 2004 and 2006. We know the White House was paying particularly close attention to Shays.

Maybe it is a stretch, but this is the Bush White House, where politics trumps all. A recent Washington Post investigation of the Bush administration noted that “political appointees at every level of government pushed a uniform agenda in key media markets and on behalf of White House-backed candidates.” In the run-up to the 2006 election, Shays announced 25 federal grants or projects and administration officials visited seven times.

U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey must entertain these questions as he considers whether to grant the tribe another shot at recognition, which it won in 2004 – and then lost in 2005.

What if the Schaghticokes really did meet the federal criteria for a tribe, but political pressure prevented a fair consideration?

“The regulations do not permit participants in the process – or their proxies – to present arguments and evidence in secret, ex parte meetings, letters or other communications to the agency, nor do they permit anyone to subvert the acknowledgement process by pressuring agency decision makers,” lawyers for the Schaghticoke say in their court brief.

It’s well known that if the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation won federal recognition, they wanted to open a casino, perhaps near Kent.

I agree we have enough casinos, Indian or otherwise. It’s easy to see why residents of Kent, a slice of pristine New England, would do whatever they could to keep a casino out.

“From secret backroom meetings with Interior officials and other officials within the Bush administration to a carefully coordinated public media campaign,” the Schaghticokes state, “the tribe’s opponents took every opportunity to send a strong, persistent message to the Department of [the] Interior.”

The more that dribbles out of Washington, the more this one stinks. Politics isn’t supposed to figure in. If they aren’t a tribe, fine. But decide on the facts, not backroom politics.

Rick Green can be reached at mailto:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant
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