Tribulations of a dubious 'tribe'

Posted: Oct 20, 2000 12:00 AM
The Mashantucket Pequots are in trouble again. And with the new controversy, an old question resurfaces: If an Indian tribe isn't really Indian, why does the federal government allow it to take advantage of special programs, legal exemptions, and enormous wealth? A few months ago, I reviewed "Without Reservation: The Making of America's Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods, the World's Largest Casino," by investigative journalist and attorney Jeff Benedict. The book exposes the dubious historical claims of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and its founder, Skip Hayward. Hayward had never lived on an Indian reservation, never called himself an Indian, and never showed any interest in embracing his alleged roots until some clever lawyers created an opportunity to turn his grandmother's land in Ledyard, Conn., into a gambling mecca. According to Benedict's research, Hayward's grandmother may not have been connected to the Pequots at all -- but instead, had remote links to the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island. In 1983, against the objections of skeptical Reagan administration officials, Congress granted Hayward and nearly 200 family members official tribal status without ever verifying the clan's genealogical claims. The Pequots annexed hundreds of acres of additional land and finagled key regulatory exemptions from clueless state officials (including then-Connecticut attorney general Joseph Lieberman). Seventeen years later, the Pequots run the world's largest gambling complex, Foxwoods, which reported more than $300 million in revenue in the first five months of this year alone and continues to take in an estimated $1 million a day. Congress has never sought the truth about the Pequots. Connecticut's congressional delegation ignores calls from local officials and residents to investigate the tribe. Democrat Rep. Sam Gejdenson, who authored the bill that granted the Pequots federal status and all its attendant benefits, has been unresponsive to inquiring media and to his own constituents in the district where he is running for re-election this year. "He was somewhat aloof when he sponsored the legislation, and now that it's 17 years after the fact and it's pretty well proven that the legislation has enormous problems, he's nowhere to be found," author Benedict recently told The Hill, a weekly D.C.-based newspaper. When I spoke with a staffer from Gejdenson's office in June, he questioned why I was writing about the Pequots' origins and dismissed it as a "local" issue of little interest to the rest of the nation. He said he would get back to me. I'm still waiting for the call. Meanwhile, the Pequots are in the national headlines again. A new audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general reports that the wealthy tribe used a government health program intended for low-income Indians to acquire $7.1 million in heavily discounted prescription drugs for non-Indian casino employees and their families. The federal drug discount program was initially established to help American military veterans pay for prescription medicines, but was expanded to cover federally recognized tribes. The Pequots have parlayed their casino empire into a number of expansive enterprises, including a $15 million-a-year mail-order prescription drug business with more than 2 million subscribers and a pharmaceutical network that dispenses discounted drugs to 16 other tribes. The HHS audit (which can be found on the Internet at outlines how the Pequots failed to follow federal guidelines for determining eligibility in the drug program. The inspector general noted that the tribe's violations could undermine support for the program -- hurting the truly needy (and truly Indian) Indians who participate in it. The Pequots have refused to respond to the feds' request to cease dispensing the drugs to non-Indians. A tribal spokesman, Arthur Henick, told the press that Foxwoods' non-Indian employees are "members of the tribal family" and, therefore, entitled to the federally discounted drugs. Washington is responsible for helping breed this incorrigible arrogance. If this "tribe," which never was required to document its origins as required by law, can continue to scam taxpayers with impunity, what's to stop others from donning feathers and headdresses, claiming Indian status, and cashing in? It's time for Congress to investigate and rein in the Pequot juggernaut.