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Abramoff Leaves Lasting Impact on Tribal Lobbying

American Indians Scarred by Scandal

Five years after lawmakers began a high-profile campaign to expose how influence-peddler Jack Abramoff bilked American Indians out of millions of dollars with inflated lobbying fees, many tribes continue to do business in Washington, D.C. — but they are spending a lot less money.

The scars remain, however, in a scandal that many Indians believe unfairly tarred their community, not just Abramoff and his associates.

“They’ve become very risk-averse,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

In recent years, Fazio has represented the Crow Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, the Oneida Nation of Indians, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, according to Senate lobbying records.

Agua Caliente is one of four tribes still at the center of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation involving Abramoff and his American Indian tribe representation, Members of Congress and former Capitol Hill and executive branch staffers.

The one-time GOP super-lobbyist is serving a 48-month sentence for defrauding American Indian tribes and corruption of public officials.

Abramoff is inmate No. 27593-112 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. He is scheduled to be released on Dec. 1, 2011, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Agua Caliente has never been accused of wrongdoing for its dealings with him, nor have the three other tribes that were defrauded by Abramoff: the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.

None of the tribes agreed to be interviewed for this article.

September 2009 will mark the fifth anniversary of Abramoff’s infamous appearance before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The lobbyist availed himself of Fifth Amendment protections against self- incrimination at the hearing but was lambasted by lawmakers.

“It’s a story of greed run amok,” then-Indian Affairs Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said at the hearing.

Nighthorse Campbell’s panel unearthed evidence that Abramoff and his public relations cohort Michael Scanlon invoiced six tribes for at least $82 million in consulting fees.

According to a Roll Call analysis of Senate lobbying records, Agua Caliente paid Abramoff $3.2 million for disclosed lobbying work from 2002 to 2004.

In contrast, the tribe paid Kilpatrick Stockton $100,000 for registered lobbying activity in the first six months of this year for “general Native American affairs.”

Lobbying fees for the three other tribes also have experienced a precipitous drop during the past five years.

From 2000 to 2003, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan paid Abramoff and his associates $4.3 million. The Saginaw paid Ietan Consulting $100,000 for lobbying work so far this year for services such as land claims legislation and language preservation appropriations.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians paid Abramoff $11.4 million for registered lobbying activity from 1999 to 2004. So far this year, the tribe has paid two lobby shops $110,000 for registered lobbying activity.

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which paid Abramoff $6.1 million in Lobbying Disclosure Act-related fees from 2001 to 2004, has not retained a registered lobbyist yet this year.

Now a lobbyist at the firm Holland & Knight, Nighthorse Campbell said “Indian tribes are much more wary, much more careful” since his committee began investigating Abramoff and Scanlon more than five years ago.

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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