Lobbyists have long profited from ties to people in power. But rarely are those relationships--and the favors they can win--displayed as brazenly as they have been recently at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency that confers federal recognition on tribes and can turn dusty reservations into billion-dollar-a-year gaming palaces. One unabashed appeal took Linda Amelia of the Chinook Indian tribe by surprise in January. Amelia saw an opportunity to advance her group's long fight for recognition as a tribe at a California G.O.P. meeting attended by Wayne Smith, the No. 2 man at the BIA. Amelia gave Smith her business card and said she would like to discuss Chinook issues with him. Two weeks later, she got a phone call from a man named Phil Bersinger. Identifying himself as a close friend and former business partner of Smith's, he said that for a fee he could influence decisions at the BIA. When Amelia asked how he had got her name, she says Bersinger replied, "You gave Wayne Smith your card, didn't you?"
Bersinger also wrote the Chinooks a letter on "Bersinger & Smith" stationery, from his consulting-partnership days with Smith in Sacramento, Calif. Bersinger boasted of his "tremendous access and influence" at the BIA, saying he vacations with Smith and opens his home to his old friend when Smith returns to the Sacramento area. For $1,000 a month, the letter said, he could be "extremely helpful" on the tribal-recognition issue. Bersinger's influence peddling was so barefaced, Amelia thought it might be an FBI sting. Her tribe ultimately declined the services. "It was improper to pay for what should be rightfully ours anyway," Amelia says.
The Chinooks were not the only tribe turned off by Bersinger. Sources tell TIME that in February Smith brought Bersinger to an official meeting in Sacramento with the Buena Vista Me-Wuks tribe of California. After the meeting, sources say, Bersinger approached a Buena Vista lawyer in search of tribal work. The Buena Vistas didn't hire him. Bersinger also struck out with the California Valley Miwoks, from whom he sought $5,000 a month in a letter sent in March. Tribal officer Tiger Paulk says of Bersinger's pitch: "It was a shakedown."
Bersinger says he may have told Smith he was soliciting Indian work but did not get Smith's permission to use his name in marketing. "I was trying to get business," he says. He admits to having written the letters but says his appeals were limited to Amelia's and Paulk's tribes. He refused to discuss how he found Amelia or what he discussed with the Buena Vista lawyer.
For his part, Smith acknowledges his close ties to Bersinger but says he did not know his friend was pursuing tribal business. He denies referring Bersinger to Amelia, and says Bersinger was at the Buena Vista meeting only by chance. Though he has never discussed official BIA business with Bersinger, Smith says, he has recused himself from the Chinook case and plans to do the same for the Buena Vistas. "I want to be above the appearance of impropriety," Smith says. --By Michael Weisskopf