By Mike Hixenbaugh
Several Lumbees say they are troubled by the alleged involvement of a former tribal government official in orchestrating the tribe’s agreement with a Las Vegas gaming consultant.
Secrecy surrounding the contract and former Tribal Administrator Leon Jacobs’ role in luring the Nevada firm to Robeson County have been the subject of quiet debate throughout Lumbee country in recent weeks.
Tribal leaders have declined to talk about the agreement, which gives Lewin International exclusive authority to handle the tribe’s push for federal recognition in Congress.
In exchange for those services, the firm is promised a stake in future Lumbee economic ventures, including gambling.
The contract has stirred passionate protests among tribal members since it was ratified earlier this year.
Multiple sources close to the tribal government told The Fayetteville Observer that Jacobs was a key player in negotiating the deal.
Jacobs resigned from the tribe more than three years ago.
Some critics have decried the involvement of a nongovernment official in brokering a major tribal contract.
“It’s the classic shadow government making decisions behind the scenes,” said Jeremiah Swett, an Indian law expert in Washington and vocal critic of the Lewin agreement. “We have to recall these people, because that’s the only way we’re going to get our credibility back.”
Jacobs brushed off the criticism. Speaking from his home in Mystic, Conn., he would not confirm or deny that he had a role in the deal.
“The only thing I will say is, I have been trying very hard to make sure we have as much assistance as we can possibly need to get our bill through the Congress,” he said. “I would hope all of these negative individuals will concentrate on making their efforts into a positive push that will generate good will for the membership.”
Jacobs, in step with recent comments by top tribal officials, defended the Lewin contract. He said it is about winning recognition and federal aid, not opening a casino.
But the contract, which includes penalties up to $30 million should the tribe back out, places a premium on passing a recognition bill that allows for gambling. The apparent reversal of the tribe’s previous position in Washington could hurt Lumbee lobbying, some Indian law experts have said.
“I think it helps,” Jacobs said. “People don’t realize what we’re up against.”
Speaking through a spokesman Wednesday, Tribal Chairman Purnell Swett seemed to deny Jacobs’ role in helping land the consulting agreement.
Swett acknowledged that Jacobs has helped with the tribe’s federal housing program in recent years.
“This is the only area in which he represents the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina,” Swett said.
But Beth Jacobs, a relative of the former tribal administrator, said Leon Jacobs told her he worked to land the Lewin International deal.
“I know Leon helped connect Lewin with the tribe because he told me,” Beth Jacobs said.
Leon Jacobs acknowledged the conversation but declined to elaborate on it.
Beth Jacobs is among a handful of tribal members – along with Jeremiah Swett, the tribal chairman’s great-nephew – who helped form the Lumbee Sovereignty Coalition in protest of the Lewin agreement.
The group is working to recall Tribal Council members who supported the contract.
“We have to stand up and be heard,” Beth Jacobs said. “They aren’t representing their people anymore.”
Leon Jacobs, a Lumbee and Robeson County native, was hired as the tribe’s administrator in January 2004 after years of working in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Programs in Chicago and for other tribes.
He stepped down in April 2006 after reportedly suffering a stroke.
Before his tenure in Pembroke, Jacobs was manager of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe in Connecticut, where he continues in a consulting capacity. The Mashantucket Pequot own and operate one of the largest gambling complexes in North America.
“The guy works for the biggest Indian casino in the nation, and they are trying to tell us all of this isn’t about gaming,” Jeremiah Swett said. “I don’t know who is buying this, but if they are, they’re buffoons.”
For three years after Leon Jacobs stepped down as tribal administrator, former Tribal Chairman Jimmy Goins kept the position vacant. Leon Jacobs continued to work for the tribe in an unofficial capacity, sources in the tribal government said.
It was during that period, Tribal Council members were told at a recent closed session, that Larry Lewin began talking with the tribe.
Goins served his last day as chairman in January, a few days after the contract was signed.
Neither Lewin nor Goins could be reached for comment.
Leon Jacobs defended the agreement and the process by which it was signed. He said the tribe’s initial support two years ago for removing Lumbee gambling from a federal recognition bill was a mistake because it limited the tribe’s sovereignty.
“Either way, there is no gaming in our bill,” Leon Jacobs said. “Why even talk about it? Let’s focus on the positive. Let’s focus on winning these federal services for our tribe.”
The first public sign of the Lewin contract came in September 2009, but few observers seemed to notice.
Goins presented a resolution before the Tribal Council that would give him, Tribal Speaker Ricky Burnett and council members Sharon Hunt and Pam Spaulding authority to “negotiate and bind” the tribe in contracts to help gain federal recognition.
The Tribal Council voted unanimously and without much discussion to approve the resolution, according to meeting minutes.
Three months later, on Dec. 28, Goins, Burnett, Spaulding and Hunt signed the contract with Lewin International during a private meeting that was unannounced to others on the Tribal Council.
In March, the Tribal Council voted 14-7 to ratify the contract during an unadvertised meeting in Raleigh. It was the first time some council members had seen the contract.
Burnett, whose signature appears on the agreement, admitted weeks later that he never read the contract.
“So you tell me,” Beth Jacobs said. “Who’s running the tribe?”
Tribal Councilwoman Louise Mitchell was among the minority that voted against the contract. She said she still doesn’t know many details about how it was negotiated.
“I don’t know why it had to be so secretive,” Mitchell said. “I would have preferred they would have had a roundtable discussion instead of going outside the permitter of the 21 council members. It should have come to all of us.”
Mitchell said she fears the deal has ended any hope of the tribe winning federal recognition in the next few years.
“If we were going to shift our recognition strategy, I wish it would have been discussed with the council members,” Mitchell said.
There are about 50,000 Lumbees, most of whom live in and around Robeson County.
Congress recognized the tribe 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.