Dark Days For Bureau Of Indian Affairs

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On Thursday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, headed by Sen. John McCain, will release its long-awaited report on the Abramoff scandal, which has also cast a cloud over the government agency charged with managing Native American issues, the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In an exclusive interview with CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian a former BIA official painted a troubling portrait of the agency.

One-quarter Sioux and the grandson of an Indian chief, Wayne Smith went to Washington in the summer of 2001 full of hope for his people. "We had a very profound belief that we could make a difference. That we could help out in Native America," Smith says.

Eight years as a top aide to California's attorney general taught Smith a lot about politics, but did little to prepare him for the raw political opportunism he says he witnessed when he took charge of Indian gambling at the BIA.

"I had lobbyists ... tell me that it was, 'It was our time, this is our time to make some money in the Indian game arena, the Indian, arena. We worked hard to get this president elected, and we expect to be rewarded for it,'" Smith tells Keteyian.

The goal, Smith adds, was for the lobbyists to make "a killing inside the BIA."

Smith says a who's who of Republican lobbyists, led by Jack Abramoff, redefined access and influence inside the BIA. All looking to cash in on the now $20 billion-a-year Indian casino business — triple the take of Las Vegas — making sure their tribes got federal approval to open casinos while keeping competing tribes out.

Their "point man," Smith says, was Steven Griles, the No. 2 official at the Department of Interior, home to the BIA.

Griles, Smith says, would "pass off notes or documents to you and ask, 'Where did you get these?' He would set up meetings, and you'd have a meeting with Abramoff and his clients where Steve would profess this was the appropriate way to go."

Dozens of e-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee reveal how Abramoff, now awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to political corruption and fraud, made repeated references to meeting Griles, once calling him "our guy," and another time offering him a prized "invite" to his "fantastic box" at a Washington Redskins game.

Griles, who declined to be interviewed, has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and points to an e-mail where Abramoff complains that "Steve ... won't discuss any of my clients with me."

"Senator, I don't recall the intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff's clients ever. I did not want to be involved in Indian gaming. And that is the truth," Griles proclaimed at a Senate hearing in November 2005.

As for Smith, today he is out of BIA and back in California, consulting with a handful of tribes on economic issues — a Native American who's no longer naive about the ways of Washington and its high-powered lobbyists.

"They have no respect whatsoever for Native Americans. They're there to make a lot of money," Smith says.

As for Griles, a source with direct knowledge of the McCain report says it "parallels" the committee's grilling of him. CBS News also learned from several sources that Griles remains a person of interest to the Justice Department task force conducting its own investigation.
  • Sean Alfano

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