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Lawsuit puts spotlight on divide within tribe

North Stonington - A federal judge has ordered the refiling of a lawsuit in which the Historic Eastern Pequots - the Indian tribe formed in 2002 by the merger of the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots - relaunch their pursuit of federal recognition.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's ruling magnifies a division within the tribe and at the same time appears to defuse a challenge from the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council, which had disavowed the tribe's original suit.

In a letter to Sullivan, Jim Cunha, the council's chairman, claimed the suit, which identified the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation as plaintiff, had been filed without the council's approval.

Responding to Cunha's letter, the plaintiff's attorney, James Benny Jones Jr., asked to substitute the "Historic Eastern Pequots" as plaintiffs, a request Sullivan granted last week. The judge directed Jones to file an amended suit by Wednesday.

Neither Cunha nor Jones responded this week to requests for comment.

Jones, a tribal member, asserts in his motion that "the tribal council's authority had been usurped of its duties relative to federal recognition because of their negligence in fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities …"

He goes on to say that Cunha's letter was "ordered by his longtime 'backer' J.D. DeMatteo, and his partner Donald Trump."

DeMatteo, a Connecticut venture capitalist, and Trump, the businessman/casino mogul, had backed the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots' bid for federal recognition prior to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' 2002 recognition of the Historic Eastern Pequots, a single tribe uniting the Paucatuck Easterns and the much larger Eastern Pequots. In 2005, the BIA rescinded the recognition.

"The DeMatteo/Trump enterprise has smothered the tribe with 80 million dollars in debt negotiated by a tribal council that has not advised the tribe of the circumstances of this obligation or the conflicts which undoubtedly existed," Jones writes in his motion.

A DeMatteo spokesman said earlier this month that DeMatteo knew nothing about the suit prior to its being filed.

Jones, who says he has served the Eastern Pequots as tribal counsel since 1978, alleges that "outside interests have conspired to disenfranchise the tribe." He says Cunha's letter has prompted the tribe to launch a recall of the council in accordance with a procedure outlined in a constitution the unified Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation ratified in 2007.

Tribal members have said they will ask state and federal authorities to investigate the council's conduct.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, names Kenneth Salazar, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and others as defendants. It seeks a review of the BIA's Oct. 14, 2005, reversal of its 2002 recognition of the Historic Eastern Pequots, claiming the reversal was "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law and unwarranted by the facts."

Federal recognition entitles Indian tribes to sovereignty and eligibility for certain federal aid. It's also a prerequisite for operating a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.


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