Three years after the outlines of the ongoing Jack Abramoff scandal were first bared, American Indian tribes that gave the now-disgraced superlobbyist millions of dollars to represent them are still paying a high price in Washington, D.C., a handful of lobbyists said in recent interviews.
Lobbyists who now work with tribes said that the dual taint of casino money and the Abramoff scandal have combined to make lawmakers wary of associating themselves publicly with American Indian tribes.
Heather Sibbison, head of the Indian practice at Patton Boggs, said tribes are still trying to shake the stigma.
“Since the advent of Indian gaming, Congress as a whole has been much more hesitant to act to help Indian tribes, and since Abramoff that dynamic has worsened,” she said. “Clearly in the last Congress the political backlash seemed to discourage federal decision-makers from making appropriate substantive decisions.”
Lobbyists said it has been harder to get Members to sign on to letters or introduce legislation on behalf of tribes due to lingering concerns about the reputation of American Indian lobbying.
“I think that all of Indian country was impacted negatively” by Abramoff, said one lobbyist who works for tribes but asked not to be named. “You know that because the opponents of some Indian priorities were giddy about the prospect of pushing through harmful legislation.”
But those opponents largely were unsuccessful in efforts such as treating Indian tribes as corporations under campaign finance laws and toughening restrictions on gaming by amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
And the tribes’ lobbyists were optimistic that in the Democratic-led Congress more attention would be paid to nongambling priorities such as health care and education.
They argued that the 2006 elections ushered out the scandal and that Democrats often are friendlier to American Indian tribes as their members tend to be Democratic voters.
“Politically, the scandal was a means to an end, to tie this around the Republicans’ head. The tribes were not going to be politically safe until that election was over,” said one lobbyist.
“I think this year is going to be an opportunity to play offense for the tribes,” the lobbyist added.
Rich Gold, a partner at Holland & Knight, said “issues like sovereignty and government-to-government relations are in a more favorable climate than they were under a Republican majority.”
With the diversification of tribal economies in areas such as agriculture, energy and real estate, tribes simply have more varied interests before Congress than preserving their rights to operate casinos.
“It really has become more like representing a state, with the typical diversity of interests of a state,” Gold said.
Mary Pavel, a partner at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, a firm that specializes in Indian law and lobbying, agreed. “The scope of issues they care about has changed somewhat,” she said, adding that things like Medicare Part D affect tribal health care reimbursements.
“It used to be that we could visit two committees, the Appropriations and the Indian committee,” Pavel said. “Now we have to go see Finance, Ways and Means, Interior ... there are just more issues.”