North Stonington — A judge has granted a dismissal of the Eastern Pequots’ bid to regain the federal recognition they won in 2002 and lost three years later.
In a decision filed Sunday in Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan found the tribe had failed to properly challenge the Interior Board of Indian Appeals’ 2005 withdrawal of the recognition, citing a six-year statute of limitations.
Federal recognition entitles tribes to sovereignty, eligibility for certain federal aid and the right to have land taken into federal trust for casino development.
Eastern Pequot officials were reviewing Sullivan’s decision Monday and had no immediate comment. James Benny Jones Jr., the tribe’s Washington-based attorney, did not respond to phone and email messages.
The defendants named in the tribe’s suit, former Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar and former Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, sought the dismissal in a court filing last April. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen filed an accompanying brief, which had the support of the top town officials in North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston.
North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II said he was pleased with Sullivan’s decision.
“We wanted it dismissed or found to be invalid,” Mullane said Monday of the tribe’s suit. “That doesn’t mean they won’t file again (for federal recognition).”
The towns have long opposed the Easterns’ bid for recognition, fearing the tribe could win the right to extend its holdings in a land-into-trust process that would exempt land from local zoning and taxation.
In his 24-page decision, Sullivan agreed with the defendants’ argument that the tribe had failed to challenge in a timely manner the IBIA’s “Reconsidered Final Decision,” or RFD, which was published Oct. 14, 2005, in the Federal Register. In January 2006, the IBIA dismissed the tribe’s request for a review of the RFD.
The RFD reversed the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 2002 decision recognizing separate factions of the tribe — the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots — as a single entity.
Sullivan found that the relevant six-year statute of limitations expired Oct. 14, 2011, three months before the tribe sued.
The suit’s filing exposed a wide rift among tribal members.
Then-tribal Chairman Jim Cunha disavowed the suit, saying the tribe’s governing body had neither reviewed nor authorized it. Other tribal members maintained the tribal council had approved the suit and that the council had been corrupted by outside business interests intent on blocking the tribe’s attempts to gain recognition.
Cunha did not seek re-election as council chairman in July and was replaced by Brian Geer.
Amid the controversy, Jones, the tribe’s attorney, filed an amended version of the suit, changing the plaintiff’s name from “Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation” to “Historic Eastern Pequots.”
Sullivan noted that documents relating to the tribe’s recognition application identify the tribe by several different names.
“At this stage in the litigation,” the judge wrote, “the record is far from clear as to whether the ‘Historic Eastern Pequots’ is the same entity as any of the entities who were affected by the RFD.”