Eastern Pequot official calls for recall of tribal council

North Stonington - Members of the Eastern Pequot Tribe say much of the tribal community is outraged by tribal Chairman Jim Cunha's disavowal of a lawsuit seeking federal recognition of the tribe.

Ashbow Sebastian, speaking in his role as the tribe's war chief, an appointed position of honor, said in a statement Saturday that members are seeking a recall vote of the entire tribal council and will ask state and federal authorities to investigate.

The statement comes in response to Cunha's assertion that the council had not authorized attorney James Benny Jones Jr.'s filing of the suit last month in U.S. District Court in Washington.

In a letter to the judge handling the case, Cunha indicated he would seek to have the suit withdrawn.

Sebastian, in his statement and in an interview last week on the tribe's Lantern Hill reservation, insisted the council had previously approved the suit, which seeks to overturn the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' 2005 denial of the tribe's application for federal recognition. The denial reversed a 2002 ruling in which the BIA granted the recognition.

"The appeal and any and all actions to protect our sovereign rights were authorized and have been continuously authorized by the tribal body, while most recently being voted upon and supported at its annual meeting last summer," Sebastian's statement said.

"At that time, a strategic action committee was organized to develop the necessary strategies to appeal the denial of acknowledgment by the BIA in the federal courts, and in turn this committee met and approved such actions as taken by Attorney Jones with the knowledge and consent and participation of members of the tribal council.

"... Furthermore, the action (disavowal of the suit) is evidence, we believe, of corruption within the process and collusion with business entities ... whose intent is to assure that efforts at federal recognition fail.

"... Hence, we are now seeking a recall of the entire current tribal council and an investigation by state and federal authorities, including the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and the U.S. Congress, of corruption, undue influence, fraud, mismanagement and bribery."

Cunha was reluctant to comment on the statement, which he hadn't seen, but listened as portions of it were read to him over the phone Saturday.

"I have no idea where he comes up with that," he said of Sebastian's charges. "It's all false."

Cunha, who was elected to a three-year term as council chairman in July 2009, dismissed the statement as "tribal politics."

Two other members of the strategic action committee, George Cook and Wolf Jackson, supported Sebastian's claim that Cunha and the tribal council were aware that Jones was filing the suit.

Cook said the strategic committee was formed out of tribal members' frustration with the council's inaction in the face of looming deadlines for filing an appeal of the BIA's 2005 denial of recognition. Many in the tribe believed that a date in October 2011 and then one in January 2012 represented the end of a six-year window in which the tribe could appeal.

"We had no money and were frustrated about what to do," Cook said, "and attorney Jones comes forward and says he can handle it."

Jones, an Eastern Pequot tribal member with a practice in Washington, has represented the tribe for decades, according to Sebastian. Jones prepared a letter last fall asking that the U.S. Department of the Interior review the BIA's 2005 reversal of the tribe's recognition. When the letter elicited no response, he filed the suit on Jan. 13.

If Cunha and the council didn't want Jones to file the suit, "they had a million chances to stop him," Cook said.

Jones, who has not responded to messages seeking comment, is expected to respond to Cunha's letter to Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in a court filing this week.

Cunha's letter is dated Jan. 20, the same day the tribal council passed a resolution stating that the tribe had not hired an attorney to file a complaint on the tribe's behalf. The resolution, a copy of which was attached to Cunha's letter, also indicates that the tribe "seeks federal recognition through understanding and negotiation rather than formal court action."

The Eastern Pequots comprise two formerly separate tribes that shared the Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots. In 2002, the BIA combined the tribes' separate applications for federal acknowledgment and recognized them as a single, 1,100-member tribe. The state, the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston and another Indian group appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which in May 2005 sent it back to the BIA.

Five months later, the BIA found that the Eastern Pequots had failed to demonstrate that they had existed continuously as a community and as a political authority, two of the criteria for recognition.

About 40 tribal members currently live on the reservation.

Before the separate tribes united, both had deals with financial backers eager to develop casinos once their tribal partners gained recognition. At one point, Donald Trump backed the Paucatucks while Eastern Capital, whose principals included Southport developer David Rosow, supported the former Eastern Pequots. JD DeMatteo, a Connecticut businessman and venture capitalist, also backed the Paucatucks and apparently still does.

In response to a question about DeMatteo's involvement with the tribe, a spokesman for DeMatteo issued a statement last week.

"Although DeMatteo Industries is the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation's only court stipulated business partner, they knew nothing about the lawsuit being filed and know nothing about its present status," said Jon Crane, the spokesman. "Mr. JD DeMatteo was recently informed by the Tribal Council that they did not initiate the lawsuit and that they are taking the necessary steps to see that it is withdrawn."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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