Sovereignty, But Not Fraud

Our View: investigation should be thorough, complete and
supported by Mike Honda and Richard Pombo
News that the federal Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating allegations of fraud involving the local Amah Mutsun tribe is encouraging.

If that investigation delays the application for federal recognition of sovereignty submitted by one faction of the tribe – the faction bent on developing the Sargent Ranch – so be it.

These claims involving forged documents, which might affect who controls the tribe, are serious charges that have the potential to involve millions of dollars. One faction, headed by Irenne Zwierlein, has submitted an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and another faction, headed by Valentin Lopez, charges that her application includes forged documents.

Zwierlein and Sargent Ranch owner Wayne Pierce are partners in a deal to bring a large-scale development to 3,000 acres of the ranch just south of Gilroy’s southern border. If Zwierlein obtains federal sovereignty on behalf of the faction she represents, she and Pierce will be able to ignore county zoning regulations, which have successfully frustrated Pierce’s development plans in the past.

Zwierlein has said the existence of forged documents in her group’s BIA application is “absolutely irrelevant” to the sovereignty application process.

It’s a ridiculous claim.

Millions of dollars in development and the quality of life in south Santa Clara and San Benito counties are at stake. Forged documents are absolutely relevant and any questions about the authenticity of the application must be cleared up fully.

This is especially pressing in light of legislation introduced by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) and Mike Honda (D-San Jose) that could speed processing of the disputed Amah Mutsun application.

The Inspector General’s decision to investigate is as heartening as it is surprising. Too often the government seems willing to look the other way when a situation gets sticky. Certainly that is the case with both of our representatives, Pombo and Honda, up to this point, who have only given this serious matter cursory attention. Hopefully, news of this investigation will change that.

The Inspector General’s investigators should be able to get to the root of the fraud allegations, and if any criminal activity is uncovered during the probe, the Department of Justice should prosecute that to the full extent of the law. The process of gaining federal Indian sovereignty should be full of scrutiny and free of fraud.

This isn’t just a tribal matter. It’s a matter of national trust in a federal process, and it’s a matter that will impact our area for the foreseeable future. The outcome will impact if, when and how thousands of pristine acres in south Santa Clara County are developed, and by whom.