Monday, October 27, 2008

The Tribes In The Media: Mashpee Wampanoag

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is a Boston Globe article that describes a lawyer's influence on the Mashpee Wampanoage Tribe.

In The Seat Of Wampanoags' Power
By Sean Murphy
Boston Globe
October 26, 2008

MASHPEE - As a founding father of the modern Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, lawyer William A. McDermott Jr. cuts an unlikely figure.

He is not a member of the tribe, nor even a Native American. But the heavy-set, glad-handing Dorchester political operative is arguably the single most powerful figure in the fractured Mashpee Wampanoag government.

He wrote the Mashpee Wampanoag constitution. He engineered the defeat of a hostile tribal council candidate. He even helped banish dissenters from the annual powwow.

And above all, he is using political skills honed in the wards of Boston and Chelsea to keep the tribal government functioning during its quest for a $1 billion resort casino in Middleborough.

Even McDermott's old friends are surprised at the role he has developed as the tribe's powerful enforcer.

"Billy's gainfully employed? That's a good thing," joked Daniel F. Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board. "I'm not sure how much experience he has with Indian tribes, but I hope they are paying him well."

Critics within the tribe say McDermott is doing the bidding of the wealthy international gambling executives who have invested more than $10 million into the tribe's casino plans.

"McDermott is running the show, sent here by the investors - and getting a good piece of the pie, too, I assume," said Amelia Bingham, a critic of the 13-member Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council whose "shunning" from tribal activities was coordinated by McDermott.

But McDermott's defenders say he always puts the tribe's interests first.

"His commitment to the tribe is impeccable, without suspicion," said Gayle Andrews, a tribal member and spokeswoman for the tribal council. "He's always there for the tribe."

McDermott, 62, declined requests to comment. Scott Ferson, who heads a Boston public relations firm hired by the tribe, said McDermott has a contract with the tribe and is paid undisclosed fees. Nearly all of the tribe's budget, according to publicly filed financial records through 2005, is funded by payments from the tribe's outside investors, a partnership that includes gambling executives Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman.

His role is becoming increasingly important now that the tribe has formally asked Governor Deval Patrick to begin negotiations for an agreement. Such a pact under federal law terms would exchange the state's blessing for a casino for a state share of the winnings. Patrick rejected the overture as premature, but negotiations may be months away.

Maintaining a veneer of trust in the tribe and its billion-dollar gambling enterprise is not always easy. The Mashpee Wampanoag government has been beset by negative news that has highlighted the high degree of internal turmoil and a lack of professional administrators at the helm.

Glenn Marshall, the former tribal chairman, resigned last year after admitting he lied about details of his military career and following disclosure of a 1981 rape conviction. His successor, Shawn Hendricks, is embroiled in a messy divorce. He admitted in court to using steroids and his wife had a restraining order against him for several months this year.

Meanwhile, the finances of the tribal council remain under the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service and the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley after some tribal members made allegations of money being misused or missing. McDermott is scrambling to get the tribe's required financial filings as a public charity up to date.

When visited unannounced at his law office in West Roxbury, McDermott declined to comment.

A specialist in state election law, McDermott has counseled and befriended many Democratic politicians, including US Representatives William Delahunt and Stephen Lynch. He grew up in Savin Hill, earned his law degree at Suffolk University, and learned his trade as a Boston election commissioner. He later served on the Boston Redevelopment Board, and then as city lawyer in Chelsea.

In 1993, he worked on the losing mayoral campaign of one of his Savin Hill neighbors, James T. Brett.

"There's no one better with numbers - he's the legend, the best," said Brett, president of the New England Council, which promotes economic growth. "You ask him how many voters in Ward 13, precinct 10, and he knows it off the top of his head."

Edward Jesser, a political consultant, said he and McDermott on many occasions have amiably whiled away the evening hours and finally closed the bar of Doyle's pub in Jamaica Plain. "He's smart and works hard, and he's great company, too," he said.

Now, after almost 35 years of slogging it in places where Indians were thought to be a baseball team from Cleveland, he has landed deep-pocket clients that generate a steady stream of work.

And it means McDermott can claim something none of his Dorchester peers can. The Mashpee Wampanoag are a sovereign nation, with its own constitution, and McDermott was one of the two lawyers who drafted it. While that may not put him on a par with John Adams, who drafted the Massachusetts constitution, it does give him broad powers as a top specialist on tribal government affairs.

His work for the tribe dates at least to 2002, when he persuaded the town of Mashpee to support the Wampanoags' bid for federal recognition as a tribe. In exchange, the tribal council agreed not to open a casino in the Cape Cod town.

"That agreement is as much his as anyone's," recalled Mashpee Selectman John Cahalane, one of the town negotiators.

He helped the tribe stay on the path to toward a casino in 2005, when tribal member Paula Peters, a casino skeptic, declared herself a candidate for the post of tribal chairwoman.

Detroit businessman Herbert Strather, who at the time was the primary outside investor in the casino deal, worried in a letter to the tribe that his team would be unable to work with Peters.

McDermott found a way to scuttle her bid.

Using his knowledge of the tribal constitution that he had written, he made the case that Peters could not prove she attended prior tribal council meetings. On the technicality, her name was removed from the ballot five days before the election.

Peter's lawyer said she had been "ambushed." But the casino investors were satisfied.

In 2006, tribal members Amelia and Stephen Bingham sued the tribe in Barnstable Superior Court for access to records of the tribe's deal with the developers. A state court judge ruled he had no authority in the affairs of a sovereign Indian nation. The records remained out of public view.

Even in victory, however, McDermott wrote to the tribe's chairman explaining the tribal council could forbid Bingham, 85, and her son, Stephen, from voting, running for office, attending meetings - even going to the annual powwow, the biggest social event of the year.

When 100 tribe members voted to rescind the shunning order, McDermott said that was not permitted under the constitution, calling such a vote an impermissible challenge to the tribe's "political integrity."