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Choctaws Fight Indian Gaming Bill

Jack Abramoff’s oldest and most lucrative lobbying client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, is helping hold up an Indian gaming reform measure being pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led the Senate investigation into the convicted former lobbyist’s misdeeds on behalf of Indian tribes.

The Choctaws, who paid Abramoff’s firms $11.7 million over a six-year stretch, have prevailed on their senior home-state Senator, Republican Thad Cochran, to put a hold on McCain’s bill. The move has helped tangle the measure in a thicket of objections from other Indian tribes and about a dozen Senators.

Aiding the Choctaws in their drive is lobbyist Kevin Ring, who worked for the tribe as an associate of Abramoff’s and later refused to testify before McCain’s Indian Affairs panel as it conducted an investigation into the corruption scandal.

Ring stopped working for the tribe in 2004 when it dropped its lobbyists at Greenberg Traurig amid revelations of Team Abramoff’s practices. But he was rehired last spring after joining the lobbying shop at Barnes & Thornburg. That contract also included former Abramoff associates Edward Ayoob and Neil Volz. Volz has since pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

Ring declined to comment for this story, and the Choctaws did not return requests for comment.

McCain’s bill would broaden the authority of the National Indian Gaming Commission to regulate Las Vegas-style gambling casinos. It would also limit tribes’ ability to set up casinos outside of their existing reservations. The Arizona Senator has sought to capitalize on the controversy surrounding the Abramoff scandal to boost his measure.

The Choctaw tribe is fighting the bill because it is the only group that enjoys an exemption from certain regulatory fees assessed by the NIGC — a perk Cochran himself secured for the group in the late 1990s. The Choctaws also are looking into the possibility of setting up a new casino outside the current reservation. Both positions would be imperiled by passage of McCain’s measure as it stands.

In a statement, Cochran spokeswoman Jenny Manley said the Senator is concerned the bill will too greatly expand the NIGC’s regulatory authority.

Manley added that the Senator “has represented his constituents well in Congress for over 30 years — well before anyone had ever heard of Jack Abramoff, and he continues to do so now. Jack Abramoff has nothing to do with my boss’ concern about this bill.”

But the Senator isn’t alone in his concerns about the bill. About a dozen holds currently are hamstringing McCain’s attempts to gain floor time. In a sign of the difficulty ahead for the Arizona Republican, some Senators have objected that the bill doesn’t go far enough, while others complain it goes too far.

For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put a hold on the bill because she would like it to include regulations for a proposed Bay Area casino project by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, her spokesman said.

But several lobbyists said that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) would likely oppose the bill if the Lytton amendment is added because one of the investors in that project is from Pennsylvania.

A Specter spokesman said that the Senator does not have a hold on the bill and did not respond to inquiries about the Lytton project by deadline.

“In the process of alleviating some holds, it creates others. I think that’s what’s going on,” one tribal lobbyist said.

In a brief interview Wednesday, McCain indicated that with time winding down on the Senate calendar and most lawmakers turning their attention to the November elections, the measure’s prospects for this year are fading fast.

“We haven’t got much time,” he said. “We keep working it, trying to do what we can, but there’s numerous holds on the bill.”

Though exact numbers are unavailable because holds are placed anonymously, several Senators appear to be joining Cochran’s attempt to block the bill for cracking down too hard on Indian tribes.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) placed a hold on the bill because, he said, “most of the tribes in my state have raised concerns about it, thinking it’s too broad in its language.”

Likewise, Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) said he has objected to the bill because tribes in his state fear it will subject them to onerous and unnecessary new regulations.

“I have a lot of respect for Sen. McCain, but to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a problem that needs fixing in Minnesota,” said Dayton, adding that seven of his state’s eight Indian tribes run successful gambling operations. “I just want to make sure if they’re going to fix a problem that exists elsewhere in the country, it doesn’t put another layer of regulation, reporting requirements, and cause other difficulties for the Minnesota operations.”

Meanwhile, some Senators are complaining that the bill has too many loopholes. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he placed a hold on the measure because it grandfathers in too many tribes currently shopping for land for new casinos. That move received a second from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who is blocking the bill to make sure it will stop a Louisiana tribe from ranging around for a new casino site in his state.

Lobbyists for tribes that want to stop reservation shopping say they applaud some of the holds by Senators who want to strengthen the bill.

In particular, these tribes have focused on altering the so-called grandfather clause that, in its current form, would exempt tribes that put in new casino applications by March 30.

A coalition of tribes opposed to off-reservation gambling has been fighting for criteria such as a historic connection to the proposed land, and not just that cut-off date, to determine whether tribes would still be able to pursue taking new land into trust.

Markham Erickson, who represents that coalition, said his clients don’t support an arbitrary date.

“The whole reason for this bill was that a lot of applications that were already pending were generating a lot of controversy,” he said.

But most tribes oppose the bill for going too far. Several tribal leaders who object to the measure on those grounds were in town last week for a legislative conference, and they made time to lobby Senators to place holds on the bill, according to Jason Giles, the deputy executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents casino tribes. Though a minority of NIGA’s members do support McCain’s efforts, the trade association has always opposed his bill on the grounds of tribal sovereignty.

“It would overburden tribes with federal regulations,” Giles said of the measure.

The Choctaws, in addition to Ring’s firm, also retain Capitol Resources, the Jackson, Miss., firm of John Lundy, a former top aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). For the last half of 2005, the Choctaw tribe paid Barnes and Thornburg $200,000, according to lobbying disclosures. For that same period, records show it paid Capitol Resources $60,000.

The tribe’s lobbying push is also getting a big assist from a Bayou State heavyweight.

On March 14, onetime lobbyist and now Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) sent letters to Cochran, Lott and McCain, touting the Choctaws as “Mississippi’s third-largest employer.” Barbour’s letter added that McCain’s bill “would amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and change the way the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is regulated.”

If enacted, Barbour’s letter said, the Choctaws “would be punished because of the Abramoff scandal.” He added to Cochran and Lott: “Help the Senate to remember that it was Jack Abramoff who ripped off the Tribe, not the other way around.”

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