By Mike Hixenbaugh
PEMBROKE – Negative publicity and tribal backlash against the Lumbees’ contract with a Las Vegas gaming consultant pushed the Nevada firm to walk away from the agreement last week.
Tribal leaders said in a news release Friday the two parties had come to a mutual agreement to break the contract. But documents obtained Monday by The Fayetteville Observer indicate Lewin International initiated the divorce.
The Tribal Council voted Saturday to accept Lewin’s request to break the contract, which had given the consultant authority to handle the tribe’s push for federal recognition in exchange for a stake in future Lumbee economic ventures, including potential gambling.
Larry Lewin, the firm’s president, expressed a desire as early as mid-May to terminate the contract, according to a four-page letter from Lewin lawyer Bruce A. Fox.
Tribal officials did not return messages Monday seeking comment about the correspondence.
In the May 19 letter to tribal attorney Ed Brooks, Fox outlined Lewin’s concerns and rebuked what he called “misrepresentations” of the contract in the media.
The agreement stirred passionate protests among tribal members after it was ratified earlier this year.
Opponents, many of whom believe the relationship threatened Lumbee sovereignty and damaged the tribe’s credibility, were threatening to recall Tribal Council members who supported the contract.
The controversy drew national media attention.
Lewin concluded last month that the negative publicity made it impossible for the firm to fund a successful lobbying effort in Washington, Fox wrote in the letter.
The lawyer scolded the tribe for violating a privacy clause when someone in the tribal government leaked a copy of the contract to the public shortly after it was signed in December.
That alone entitled Lewin to break the contract, Fox wrote.
“It would be best, however, if the termination of the agreement can be accomplished in a cooperative manner,” Fox wrote.
In another letter obtained by the newspaper, Larry Lewin personally wrote to Tribal Chairman Purnell Swett last week to confirm plans to end the agreement.
The two parties agreed to break the pact during a phone conference on June 1, Lewin indicated in the letter.
“I have come to believe strongly in the justice of the tribe’s efforts to achieve federal recognition,” Lewin wrote. “However, . it is apparent that Lewin International’s continued association with the tribe will not facilitate this goal.”
Both parties agreed to terminate the contract without penalty for either side.
In his letter to tribal officials, Fox revealed details of contract negotiations that had previously been kept quiet.
Tribal leaders were the ones who sought out a relationship with the gaming consultant to help in their recognition fight, Fox wrote.
“Lewin International was in fact reluctant to engage in this transaction, and several times over the course of a period of years it was the tribal leadership which sought to renew the stalled negotiations,” Fox wrote.
The negotiations hit a snag, Fox wrote, when tribal leaders refused to bring the contract before the entire Tribal Council prior to signing it.
Tribal leaders told Lewin the 21-member council couldn’t be trusted to keep the contract confidential and instead insisted that then-Tribal Chairman Jimmy Goins and a few other tribal leaders had the authority to bind the tribe in a contract, Fox wrote.
Lewin accepted the compromise on the conditions that the contract come to a full Tribal Council vote within six months and that incoming Tribal Chairman Swett offer his full support, Fox wrote.
Swett previously indicated he was unaware of the contract before he took office in January.
Goins, Tribal Speaker Ricky Burnett and two top members of the Tribal Council’s federal recognition committee signed the contract at a private meeting on Dec. 28.
The council voted to ratify the agreement three months later at an unadvertised meeting in Raleigh, although multiple council members said they hadn’t seen the contract prior to the vote.
Fox also was critical of the tribe’s public handling of the agreement.
The lawyer said he was disappointed with the wording of a letter the tribe handed out during its spring pow-wow on May 2. The tribe declined to include Fox’s suggested changes to the letter, he wrote, and in doing so missed an opportunity for tribal leadership to influence public debate over the contract.
Fox was again disappointed with the tribe’s communications during a Tribal Family Meeting held May 7, he wrote. The meeting at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke was closed to nontribal members and the media.
Fox called the meeting “yet another missed opportunity to set the record straight and unify the tribe behind its leadership and the agreement.”
Lewin representatives maintained in both letters to tribal leaders that the agreement with the tribe was never about gambling. Tribal leaders struck a similar tone after the contract was made public, even though the agreement placed an emphasis on passing a bill that allowed for gaming.
With the contract behind them, tribal leaders said they will begin crafting a new strategy for winning federal recognition as early as this week.
Arlinda Locklear, a Maryland-based Lumbee lawyer, had spearheaded the tribe’s recognition effort, unpaid, for more than 20 years before the Lewin contract replaced her this year.
The tribe has not contacted her since ending the agreement, she said.
Congress recognized the tribe of about 50,000 members in 1956 but denied it financial benefits afforded to other native groups. Full recognition would bring the tribe millions of dollars in aid for education, health and child welfare.
A recognition bill passed the House last year and is awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor.
The legislation includes an amendment specifically denying the Lumbees the authority to operate casinos.
Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 486-3511.