As Roll Call reported last week, Vitter, while a House Member, pushed a provision in an Appropriations bill that was designed to instruct the Interior Department to deny federal recognition to a tribe seeking to build a casino in western Louisiana. An opponent of gambling, Vitter worked hand-in-hand with a group opposed to the proposed tribal casino — a group that was later revealed to be funded by a competing Indian casino that simply didn’t want increased competition to its multi-million-dollar gambling operation.
Vitter, who has said he did not know the anti-gambling group was a front for another casino, said Wednesday that McCain personally approached him last week to assure him that his committee is not angling to embarrass fellow Senators. But, Vitter said, he has nothing to hide and believes McCain’s probe is highlighting the unseemly connection between Indian casino money and attempts to expand tribal gambling.
“I encouraged him to keep going full speed ahead,” Vitter said.
A senior McCain aide said a Member could end up in the committee’s cross-hairs only if the Member was involved in defrauding the tribes.
In addition to McCain’s Indian Affairs probe, a federal grand jury is examining Abramoff and the interlocking web of financial interests he and Scanlon established or funded, an investigation involving the Justice Department as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the Interior Department.
While the grand jury investigation has been cloaked in secrecy, Indian Affairs has already had two high-profile hearings on the matter, hauling Abramoff and Scanlon before the panel and forcing them to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
The panel’s hearings revealed that Scanlon billed the tribes for at least $66 million in public relations fees, about $42 million of which was pure profit that was split down the middle between Scanlon and Abramoff. Most of Abramoff’s profit was steered to a variety of business groups and nonprofits he formed, although in one instance Scanlon’s PR firm wrote out a single check worth more than $4 million, made payable to Abramoff personally.
McCain said Wednesday that his committee continues to examine all the financial angles of where the $82 million ended up, as well as other political and charitable contributions the tribes made at Abramoff’s request. But he reiterated that he was following the money trail, not the legislative actions taken by Members of Congress. “We stop when we find out where the money went,” he said.
At one of the public hearings, however, then-Indian Affairs Chairman and ex-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and McCain aired a highly embarrassing incident involving House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who, as has been widely reported, took costly trips with Abramoff to Scotland to play the legendary St. Andrews golf course. Abramoff pushed Ney to insert language into an election reform bill he oversaw that would have shut down a tribal casino viewed as a rival to another of Abramoff’s clients, and in addition the lobbyist’s clients gave Abramoff $32,000 in contributions.