Tribal Dispute Sparks Fierce Lobbying Battle

Posted July 29, 2003 at 4:30pm

Charges of political payoffs, dirty tricks and clandestine lobbying campaigns are typically reserved for high-stakes K Street battles among Washington’s well-heeled industry giants.

Not so in central Iowa, where a brutal fight over control of the 1,300-member Sac & Fox of the Mississippi Indian tribe has spurred both sides to send pricey lobbyists to Capitol Hill to battle it out.

In the past few months, dual bands of lobbyists for dueling factions of the Sac & Fox tribe have lobbied members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation to pressure a federal agency to install their clients as the formal governing body of the tribe.

As with nearly all lobbying fights in Washington, the battle over control of the tribe comes down to money: The tribe’s governing body will seize control of a newly refurbished Meskwaki Casino and adjoining 200-room hotel, a complex that hauls in nearly $3 million a week.

The fight began several years ago in Iowa, but it moved to Washington this spring after the Bureau of Indian Affairs tapped a slate of officials, led by Alex Walker, to take control of the Sac & Fox government.

The BIA, which has sole discretion to recognize tribal leaders in accordance with tribal constitutions, made the decision in April.

That prompted Homer Bear Jr., leader of the rival Bear Council, to launch his own lobbying effort. The Bear Council had worked on its own to pressure the BIA before the decision.

In May, the Bear Council agreed to pay $150,000 to retain Greenberg Traurig and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a Republican with strong ties to the White House and a track record of results on American Indian issues.

Abramoff, one of a handful of K Street lobbyists committed to raising $200,000 for President Bush’s re-election campaign, counts a slew of American Indian tribes among his biggest clients, including the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Meanwhile, the Walker Council has signed up Dorsey & Whitney LLP, a shop that boasts more than two-dozen American Indian tribes among its clients.

The Walker Council also has a secret weapon: Lowell Junkins, a well-known Democratic operative in Iowa politics and a dear friend of Rep. Leonard Boswell’s (D-Iowa), one of the central players in the Sac & Fox fight.

A former leader in the state Senate and the party’s 1986 gubernatorial nominee, Junkins helped recruit Boswell to enter politics in the early 1980s and has been a political ally and financial contributor ever since.

Junkins and other lobbyists supporting the Walker Council have been making the rounds of the Iowa delegation urging them to ensure that the BIA maintains its support of the Walker tribe — and rejects the Bear Council’s efforts to overturn the decision.

“I’ve spoken to people on the Hill sharing my view on how unsettling all this thug behavior is,” Junkins said, referring to the Bear Council’s campaign to seize control of the tribe.

One of the lawmakers Junkins contacted was his friend Boswell. In late March, Junkins asked Boswell to contact the BIA.

On March 31, Boswell called the office of Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary of the BIA, urging the agency to make a decision.

The next day, Martin wrote to Boswell saying that it recognized the Walker Council.

A spokesman for Bosewell said his boss was contacted by both sides of the issue and did not tell the BIA to make a decision in favor of either side.

“To say that we in any way urged or pushed for either side to be recognized was not the case,” said Boswell spokesman Eric Witte. “We did not act on behalf of any party.”

Neither Junkins nor any of Walker’s lobbyists has registered to lobby Congress on the issue.

Junkins said he was not being paid to lobby on behalf of the Walker Council and insisted that he is acting on his own behalf.

However, supporters of the competing Bear Council charge that Junkins has a huge financial stake in the outcome of the issue.

If the Walker Council retains its grip on power, they say, Junkins is much more likely to receive a $1.3 million settlement from an ongoing court fight with the Walker Council.

Although they are now allies on Capitol Hill, Junkins and the Walker Council spent the past five years locked in a bitter, multimillion-dollar lawsuit over some consulting work Junkins performed for the tribe’s casino.

Coincidentally or not, soon after Junkins began urging Members to support the Walker Council, his longtime adversary reversed course and in late June agreed to pay Junkins $1.3 million to settle the lawsuit.

The law firm that represented Junkins in the case against the Walker Council — Iowa-based Wasker, Dorr, Wimmer & Marcouiller — also became fast friends with the Walker Council and sent lobbyists to Washington to aid them.

Junkins and his attorneys said their support for the Walker Council has nothing to do with the $1.3 million settlement.

“We took it upon ourselves to make sure that the truth was out there,” said Wasker Dorr’s Fred Dorr.

Junkins added: “The timing of all of this is kind of mixed in with this other stuff.”

Leaders of the Bear Council “have a second-cousin relationship with the truth,” Junkins charged. “I don’t have a dog in this fight. My interest is purely a matter of looking at what I believe to be the legitimate BIA-recognized council.”

In fact, Junkins said he expects to receive his $1.3 million settlement regardless of who controls the Sac & Fox government.

“I would not expect that that would change one way or the other,” he said.

The Bear Council, however, is likely to try to block the settlement if it succeeds in Washington and takes control of the tribal council. In fact, Bear Council officials have already filed a lawsuit to block the settlement.

Still, Junkins maintains he has no financial stake in the outcome and charged that the opposition has a “wholesale disregard for the law.”

He added: “It’s a central American uprising in central Iowa.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the lobbying could be paying off.

BIA officials plan to make a decision this week about how to settle the dispute.