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Tribal Lobbying Is Booming After Abramoff Scandal

Abramoff waits to leave Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., after entering a plea agreement on three felony charges in 2006. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Gila River Indian Community, an Arizona tribe that operates casinos near Phoenix wants to stop another tribe from opening a rival enterprise. So Gila River mobilized its lobbyists at Washington’s biggest firm.  

The community paid Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $2.3 million for federal lobbying so far this year. As a Gila-backed bill moved through the committee process in the House, the Tohono O’odham Nation bolstered its own K Street presence, nearly doubling the amount spent on federal lobbying, which is about $2 million so far this year. The pricey skirmish between the two Arizona tribes offers proof that a decade-old scandal that rocked K Street, Capitol Hill and Indian country did not ruin the lucrative business of representing Native American tribes.

(Podcast: CQ Policy Focus on Indian Tribal Lobbying)

The scandal, which captivated Washington and sparked an overhaul of federal lobbying laws, stemmed from Jack Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of tribal clients with gambling interests.  

It ultimately led to 20 convictions or guilty pleas including those of Abramoff and one lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who resigned in 2006 soon after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements.  

The episode, the subject of the 2010 film “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey, has not curbed the profitable practice of representing tribal governments. Instead of abandoning K Street 10 years ago, tribes increasingly have turned to lobbyists to help move the federal government their way.  

Tribes have an unusual relationship with the U.S. government: They are sovereign nations in their own right, but the feds must approve land acquisitions and the National Indian Gaming Commission regulates the industry, for example.  

Lobbyists can help.  

Power of Money Federal lobbying by Indian gaming enterprises hit an all-time high last year at more than $24 million and this year is on track for the same level, according to lobbying data analyzed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That’s about one-third of the tab for the entire defense and aerospace industry, the center found.  

31indian-lobbying2 Lobbyists who specialize in this kind of advocacy say the Abramoff saga was but a blip, and tribal clients say they’ve moved on.  

“The Abramoff era is behind us,” said Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which did not work with Abramoff.  

In 2005, the year Abramoff was indicted, CRP estimated that $19 million was spent on tribal-gaming lobbying. Abramoff was famous then — infamous now — for reporting huge dollar amounts on his Lobbying Disclosure Act reports to Congress. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs, Calif., for one, paid Abramoff’s former firm $2 million in 2003.  

Gaming is only one of the issues on which tribes seek lobbying help.  

“Since the beginning of this country, tribes have had resources that outsiders wanted to take, with or without fair compensation — usually without,” said Philip Baker-Shenk, a partner in Holland & Knight’s Indian law practice, who is not involved in the Gila-Tohono O’odham feud.  

“Tribes have had to use the rule of law, moral persuasion and alliances to protect their own sphere of influence.”  

Abramoff’s big bills got attention around town, and so have Akin Gump’s from the Gila tribe.  

Akin Gump, the biggest lobbying practice as measured in federal revenue reported to Congress, is on track to bring in nearly $40 million for 2015. Akin Gump’s clients span the economy from Amazon.com to private equity giant KKR & Co. Notable lobbyists include former Reps. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., and Vic Fazio, D-Calif.  

Akin Gump’s Gila River client has argued against the Tohono nation’s land acquisition and casino plan because it isn’t “aboriginal” to the Tohono O’odham, said lobbyist Donald Pongrace of the law firm.  

The Tohono secured new land near Phoenix in Glendale, Ariz., where it wants to operate a casino, as part of a settlement with the federal government after some of its previous territory was flooded in the 1960s when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Painted Rock Dam. The spot in suburban Phoenix is an attractive place for a casino.  

“It has lots of people and a big freeway that goes through it,” says Eileen Luna Firebaugh, an American Indian Studies professor at the University of Arizona. “So they started suing each other, and it’s been terrible and it’s been going on for years.”  

Congress’ Turn Now that feud is on Capitol Hill.  

The fight over the bill to stop the Tohono O’odham Nation from opening its Vegas-style casino has had Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who opposes the measure, worrying that the measure’s proponents will try to sneak it toward passage.  

When House GOP leaders placed the bill on the suspension calendar late last month, Grijalva upped his lobbying against the measure and Republican leaders removed it.  

Grijalva said the Gila River tribe is trying to get Congress to do what courts and the executive branch would not do — stop the Tohono O’odham’s future casino — by relying on “a very powerful firm like Akin Gump, who have many clients and entry into many offices in Congress.”  

He says the “grossness” and illegal activities of the Abramoff situation are absent in the Gila and Tohono O’odham fight.  

“But I do see a pattern,” he said. “If it is in the interest of the client … we overlook judicial decisions or agency decisions and apply the political pressure. And that’s when lobbying firms make a great deal of money.”  

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., the bill’s chief sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment. His communications director, Destiny Decker, said she hoped the bill would be up for a vote on the House floor “very soon.”  

Sen. John McCain, another Arizona Republican who has proposed a companion bill, said local officials “do not approve of this or any other Indian casino being airdropped in their communities.”  

The Tohono O’odham’s representatives contend the tribe’s situation is unique. “This is why the Nation’s opponents are asking Congress to change the law,” said Heather Sibbison, who represents the tribe.  

Defense and Promotion Still, the current lobbying effort is a far cry from the Abramoff situation McCain probed as chairman of the Indian Affairs panel a decade ago.  McCain said tribal representation has changed “dramatically” since then.  

“They’re open in who they are hiring as their lobbyists,” he said.  

Pongrace, who heads Akin Gump’s tribal and lobbying practices, agrees that tribes have come a long way in playing the influence game.  

“What tribal lobbying has done over time is turn the equation on its head: Today, it’s not just how do you defend Indian tribes but also how can you promote tribes’ interests,” Pongrace says. “And that’s happened because tribes have become increasingly sophisticated in their lobbying.”  

Abramoff, who has been out of prison since 2010, said he hasn’t followed the recent Gila River and Tohono O’odham Nation conflict. It’s an area, he said, that no longer interests him.  

“As you can imagine, I’m hardly itching to get back into a business that ended so unhappily for me,” he said. “The system is rife with corruption, when people can transfer resources to public servants in exchange for favors.” Related: Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.