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Abramoff Leaves Lasting Impact on Tribal Lobbying

Since leaving Congress, Nighthorse Campbell, himself a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, has represented the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians, the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe and numerous other tribes and American Indian business interests.

The former Senator said his lineage assuaged the concerns of tribal leaders in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, likely helping him build his business after he left Capitol Hill in 2005.

He said many tribes implemented a rigorous bidding process for tribal contracts once the breadth of Abramoff’s fraud was known and that the turmoil brought many tribes together.

“It’s human nature to assume that other people of your blood, your heritage would have a better understanding of your problems. Indian people are like anyone else: You burn them once and you’re probably not going to be able to get back in to talk with them,” he said. “They scrutinize [lobbyists] very carefully now.”

Another lobbyist who represents tribes agreed that American Indians are more careful post-Abramoff about enlisting downtown help. But the lobbyist also said there’s a lingering frustration among American Indians that tribes were seen as being complicit in the fraud.

“They’re a lot more cautious, some are paranoid, some are defensive, some are pissed off — the emotions really run the gamut,” the lobbyist said. “For the tribes that were once represented by Abramoff, they’re pissed off that this was portrayed as an Indian scandal, when it should have been a lobbying scandal.”

One legislative fight that may draw tribes back into the political fray could be “card check.” As it is written, the Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for the estimated 500,000 employees of gaming facilities and other tribal businesses to unionize.

Tribes are working with Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to craft an exemption for reservation employees, 90 percent of whom “are not Indian,” Nighthorse Campbell said.

“It would make it very easy for unions to come on the reservation and unionize,” the former Senator said. “They think it’s the beginning of the end of sovereignty if unions can come on the reservation and dictate what you’re going to pay, who you’re going to hire.”

Another lobbyist who represents Indian tribes said there was a distrust of organized labor by American Indians, noting that “tribes and unions have never mixed well together” because of concerns over sovereignty and “a lack of sensitivity on the part of the unions.”

The lobbyist also recalled once asking a tribal leader about the origins of the feud.

“We’ve spent so long trying to get a voice of our own,” the tribal leader said, according to the lobbyist. “And now that we’re in a position to do it, you want us to turn around and have the unions tell us what we’re going to do?”

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