It was a long time coming, but the Historic Eastern Pequot Tribe has sued to overturn the government's 2005 withdrawal of the federal recognition it had granted the tribe three years earlier.
The internecine discord over the suit's filing may hint at why it took the tribe, also known as the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, so long to act.
A week after the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation filed suit Jan. 13 against U.S. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar, the tribal council disavowed it. Ten councilors voted unanimously to authorize Chairman Jim Cunha to seek the suit's withdrawal.
That prompted the attorney who filed the suit, tribal member James Benny Jones Jr., to file an amended complaint this month, changing the name of the plaintiff to "Historic Eastern Pequots."
But that's the same tribe, isn't it?
It is if you accept the Bureau of Indian Affairs' 2002 "Final Determination" of the separate federal recognition petitions of the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots and the more populous Eastern Pequots. The BIA, the division of the Department of the Interior that decides such things, ruled that the tribes, which share a North Stonington reservation, actually were factions of a single "historical" tribe, the Eastern Pequots.
But it's now unclear whether the BIA's pronouncement ever fostered much tribal unity.
In its Jan. 20 resolution, the tribal council asserted that the tribe "seeks federal recognition through understanding and negotiation rather than formal court action." It stated that the tribal nation had not hired an attorney to file a complaint on its behalf and that the council had not authorized or approved the filing of "Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation v. Salazar."
Other tribal voices fired back, maintaining that the suit had been approved "by the entire tribal body" and calling for a vote to recall the council. Ashbow Sebastian, a tribal member and former Eastern Pequot councilor who emerged as a spokesman for the group, suggested the tribal council had been corrupted by the influence of outside business interests intent on thwarting the tribe's pursuit of federal recognition.
Neither Sebastian nor Cunha would comment for this article.
Federal recognition could confer all kinds of benefits on the tribe, including sovereign status, federal aid for housing, education and health care and the right to have land taken into federal trust for casino development.
The latter is what a number of tribal suitors had in mind when they began bankrolling the tribe's recognition efforts in the 1990s.
According to court documents, Amalgamated Industries, a venture capital firm headed by JD DeMatteo, partnered with the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots around 1992, providing the tribe with business and financial advice and helping it negotiate with "numerous world-class developers and financial partners," including Donald Trump, the real estate mogul.
Amalgamated and Trump provided more than $14 million to fund the academic and legal experts who helped prepare the Paucatucks' application for recognition.
Similarly, the Eastern Pequots faction of the tribe welcomed the support of Eastern Capital Development, whose principals included Southport developer David Rosow and Florida financier William I. Koch.
After the BIA recognized the two tribal factions as one in 2002, the unified tribe's joint interim council voted to terminate its relationships with Amalgamated and Trump, prompting the jilted backers to file breach-of-contract suits. Nine councilors who were former Eastern Pequots voted to negotiate an exclusive agreement with Eastern Capital while four former Paucatucks on the council were opposed. A fifth former Paucatuck abstained.
In the judgment in the Amalgamated suit in 2007, the Historic Eastern Pequot Tribe stipulated that the agreements it signed with Amalgamated were legal and valid and that the tribe could move forward "with a business relationship with JD DeMatteo."
But Amalgamated and Trump say they have had no dealings with the tribe since then.
"My client hasn't conducted any business with them since the final stipulation and joint motion for judgment on Oct. 4, 2007," Jon Crane, a spokesman for DeMatteo, wrote in an email last week.
The tribal faction that supports the tribe's recent filing against the Interior Department has speculated that DeMatteo is influencing Cunha, the tribal chairman, and also claims that Trump has long sought to undermine the tribe's recognition efforts. In the amended complaint filed March 7 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Historic Eastern Pequots claim that Securities and Exchange Commission filings indicate that Trump viewed the Connecticut gaming market as a threat to his interests in Atlantic City.
"All of the conduct by the Trump enterprise actually was to conspire to stop the plaintiff's entry in the Northeast gaming market by thwarting the tribe's federal recognition efforts," the suit says.
New London attorney Robert Reardon, who represented Trump in his suit against Eastern Capital and the tribe, dismissed the claim in a phone interview last week.
"That's not accurate," he said. "We expended a great deal of money to allow the tribe to successfully pursue federal recognition. We still hope the tribe will be successful, as it would be beneficial to Mr. Trump's interests."
Reardon said Trump has had no direct contact with the tribe since the 2007 settlement of his suit.
Claims of errors
In its complaint against Interior, the Historic Eastern Pequots claim the Interior Board of Indian Appeals erred in January 2006 when it ruled the tribe had no recourse to contest an Interior official's 2005 reversal of the granting of recognition.
The reversal came in response to an appeal of the recognition by the state, the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston and others.
"Since the initial positive Final Determination in June 2002, the tribe was never given any opportunity to participate in the process by way of reply or rebuttal," which constitutes "a denial of fundamental due process," the tribe says in its suit.
Last October, on the sixth anniversary of the reversal, the tribe asked Salazar, the Interior secretary, to review the decision. When it received no response, the tribe filed suit on Jan. 13, the sixth anniversary of the date on which it first sought a review of the reversal.
The Historic Eastern Pequots' suit claims the BIA failed to apply the proper standards of evidence in finding that the tribe's application failed to meet all seven of the criteria for recognition. The tribe contends that the more than 30,000 documents it offered as proof of its "nearly 400 years of sociopolitical continuity and statutory existence" were more than sufficient.
The tribe's suit also argues that Interior was wrong to allow the state and 20 local towns to appeal the recognition "on the basis of an opposition to an expansion of gaming into their communities …"
The opponents, the suit says, are "biased parties" because they receive shares of the Pequot-Mohegan fund, which distributes gaming revenues from Connecticut's two casino-owning tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.
The suit's defendants - Secretary Salazar and Larry Echo Hawk, Interior's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs - have yet to file a response.
"We did receive it, but there's nothing we can say," a BIA spokeswoman said last week. "We're taking a look at it."