A dispute between members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of central Michigan and Kevin Gover, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has intensified with allegations that the tribe's ousted council paid $100,000 to a Washington media consultant to launch a campaign to force Gover from office.
Gover's spokesman, Rex Hackler, criticized a "media outreach tactics" proposal drafted in June by McCarthy Communications Co., a small Washington public relations firm, that promised to contact reporters at national media outlets to promote stories on the "failings of the current Bureau of Indian Affairs leadership."
The strategy memo said the objective was to "eliminate interference from the Bureau of Indian Affairs into the legal goals of the tribe" and to introduce the media to the bureau's failings in order to "bring increasing pressure on Assistant Secretary Gover's administration."
Calling the media campaign "shameful and unethical," Hackler said, "I've never seen in Indian Country an attempt to drive someone out of office on behalf of a client." Hackler said Gover is willing to accept criticism, but when faced with unfair criticism, he was "prepared to shoot back."
Jim McCarthy, president of McCarthy Communications, said Gover's counterattack "went beyond the pale" on Friday when Hackler faxed to reporters copies of McCarthy Communications' confidential consulting contract with the Saginaw Chippewa tribal council, along with a copy of a voucher request for $100,000 to be paid by the council to the public relations firm for services through Sept. 30. The contract called for an additional $20,000 a month to be paid through June 30, 2000, for a total of $280,000.
McCarthy said BIA officials also had begun telephoning other tribal leaders as part of a "campaign of fear and intimidation" that he believes already has led to one tribal client firing his firm. He declined to name the client.
"I run a small PR shop, and we have been hired by Indian Country clients to bring issues to the fore and encourage the media to scrutinize the BIA for its failings," McCarthy said. "The BIA is an enormous federal agency, and apparently they'll go to any lengths to blame the messenger."
Replying to Hackler's assertion that he had never seen such tactics, McCarthy said, "I say to Mr. Hackler, welcome to the Beltway. I doubt there is a public relations firm in town that hasn't been asked to devise a media strategy to publicize the shortcomings of a senior administration official or agency."
The battle between the BIA and the Michigan tribe, one of the richest in the nation, heated up Tuesday when Gover, who is assistant secretary of interior for Indian affairs, ousted the 10-member Saginaw Chippewa tribal council headed by Chief Kevin Chamberlain and replaced it with 12 candidates he said had received the largest number of votes in the most recent of four disputed elections on the reservation.
The ousted council, which says that four elections it has lost in the last two years were unconstitutional because of disputed tribal enrollment procedures, lost a bid in U.S. District Court for a temporary restraining order to prevent Gover from seating the new council members. It is now seeking a preliminary injunction against the BIA head on the grounds his move was "arbitrary, capricious and illegal."
In a letter to Chamberlain notifying him of his removal, Gover had said that besides illegally holding power after losing four consecutive tribal elections, the ousted council members had contributed to what Gover called "an unflattering newspaper article about me."
He was referring to a Washington Post article in which tribal leaders across the country were quoted as criticizing Gover for being "insensitive" toward the needs of Native Americans and failing to adequately represent the interests of Indians.
Gover said the Saginaw Chippewa officials' critical remarks had not influenced his decision to remove them from office and that his agency's ethics office had ruled he could properly be the "deciding official" in the seating of the new council.
CAPTION: Members of a Michigan tribe are accused of campaigning to oust Kevin Gover, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.