WASHINGTON – The Interior Department inspector general is investigating whether a former business partner of the No. 2 official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs used their relationship to seek business from Indian tribes.
Additionally, Wayne Smith, the deputy assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, has disqualified himself from official dealings with at least three California tribes to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Interior spokesman Eric Ruff said Friday.
In two instances, Philip Bersinger of Gold River, Calif., wrote letters to tribal officials offering his services and stressing his friendship with Smith. They were the principals in the consulting firm Bersinger and Smith until Smith was named to his government job in late October.
"Wayne has asked for the investigation because of the improper nature of the letters," Ruff said. "Wayne was not aware that these letters were sent."
In February, Bersinger wrote the Chinook Tribal Council asking for $1,000 a month to press the Chinooks' case for federal recognition, a highly sought, lucrative designation.
"I am in a position to be extremely helpful with this as well as other issues," Bersinger wrote under a Bersinger and Smith letterhead. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
Bersinger, who also worked with Smith at the California Department of Justice, bragged about his long relationship with Smith. "On a more personal level, Wayne and I still vacation together, and he stays with me at my home whenever he comes to Sacramento (which is every 2-3 weeks to see his kids)," Bersinger wrote. "I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture."
Bersinger made a similar offer to the California Valley Miwok tribe.
Bersinger did not return telephone calls.
Spokesman Ruff also said that Smith would not handle matters involving the Pechanga tribe of Temecula Valley but did not say why.
The Pechanga's new lobbyist, Sacramento attorney Tracey Buck-Walsh, was Smith's subordinate when they worked in state government. Buck-Walsh did not return telephone calls Friday.