More Clintonian deeds go unpunished

Posted: Mar 06, 2002 12:00 AM
Clinton-era sleaze is like a stubborn toe fungus. It just won't go away. Fourteen months after the 42nd president of the United States left office, news is spreading of yet another unsightly scandal under his watch. And true to Clintonian form, it looks like those involved won't ever have to pay a price for their creepy actions. This case comes from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has been turned into a career slot machine for government officials who parlay their public positions into lucrative lobbying jobs and consulting gigs. One of the chief functions of the agency is to approve federal recognition of Indian tribes -- a highly sought-after status that brings a wealth of exemptions from many federal taxes and all state income, sales and excise taxes; state environmental and land use laws; workers' compensation and occupational health and safety laws; and state laws governing personal injuries, sexual harassment and contracts. Oh, and one more thing: exemption from state laws restricting gambling. It's that last golden perk that has all sorts of Native American wannabes clamoring for tribal status, no matter how historically flimsy and legally dubious their claims. Across the country, cultural entrepreneurs are rediscovering their Indian roots -- or creating them out of thin air -- to cash in on monopolistic gambling opportunities. Some of these "Native American" claimants are tribes that have been out of existence for decades or have never lived together on a traditional reservation until after they formulated casino plans. Not ones to let either law or history get in the way, some of the Clinton administration's top BIA officials apparently engaged in a scheme to alter official documents and rush them past review in order to grant last-minute recognition to the Duwamish tribe in Washington state. The "tribe's" recognition had been opposed vehemently by the BIA's rank-and-file genealogists and anthropologists; its petition had been rejected once before because staff researchers doubted whether current tribal members had ancestral ties to the original Duwamish Indians. Nevertheless, top officials pushed forward with that controversial recognition -- and many others -- in the administration's final frenzy. In a new report, the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said that the bureau's research staff, under intense pressure, "collectively described the last 17 days of the Clinton administration as pure hell." (Just the last 17?) As The Boston Globe, New York Times and others reported last week, the OIG also concluded that BIA administrators had illegally backdated recognition forms -- three days after Clinton departed. Authorities said that on Jan. 22, 2001, then-acting BIA chief Michael Anderson waited outside his old office building in his car, where a former assistant delivered the Duwamish papers. Anderson signed them, the OIG report said, and a bureau official later stamped the document with the date Jan. 19, 2001. The BIA's deputy commissioner for Indian affairs, Sharon Blackwell, a Clinton holdover, authorized Anderson to sign the documents. According the Times, "she said backdating them was appropriate because he had intended to sign them." Anderson, now a partner at Monteau and Peebles, a D.C.-based firm specializing in Indian law and gambling issues, denies any wrongdoing. The Duwamish group's attorney has also pooh-poohed the action as a "technicality." And Anderson's former boss, Kevin Gover -- now a partner at D.C.-based Steptoe and Johnson, another high-powered law firm representing Indian interests -- dismissed the investigation of irregularities in BIA's recognition process as "hoo-ha." It's hardly surprising that these Clinton-era schemers are shrugging off official deception. But what really rankles is the Bush administration's decision to turn its nose up as well. John Ashcroft and the Justice Department have refused to criminally prosecute Anderson for impersonating a federal official. The Interior Department allowed Blackwell, who sanctioned the shady signature, to retire last week without explanation. The Era of No Consequences marches on.