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Opinion
Committee report on horizon in tribal lobbying scandal



Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) at Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. June 22, 2005. Photo © NSM.

Indianz.Com Listening Lounge:
Note: All files are in MP3 format.

Intro - 28:06 - 11.2MB
Introductory Statements

Panel I - 24:51 - 9:95MB
Panel I Testimony

Q&A - 34:05 - 13.6MB
Panel I Questions and Answers

Panel II - 11:08 - 4.46MB
Panel II

Panel III - 13:20 - 5.34MB
Panel III Testimony

Q&A - 51:12 - 20.5MB
Panel III Questions and Answers
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee plans to draft a report and make recommendations to prevent what chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) called a "gross injustice" that was inflicted on several tribes by a Republican lobbyist and his associates.

McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the committee's vice chairman, presided over the third hearing into the Jack Abramoff scandal yesterday. They heard testimony from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and other witnesses who detailed questionable dealings with the disgraced lobbyist alleged to have bilked six tribes out of more than $66 million.

"The story speaks for itself," McCain said at the conclusion of the nearly three-hour proceeding.

One more hearing is planned to deal with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, McCain said. After that, the committee will issue a report and "come up with recommendations to do whatever is necessary" to stop what he and Dorgan repeatedly referred to as a tale of theft and betrayal.

"The tribe has been a victim of fraud, we believe," Dorgan said, referring to the wealthy Mississippi Choctaws.

Three witnesses from the tribe read from a statement attributed to Chief Phillip Martin, who did not appear at the hearing. McCain said he met with the tribe's longtime leader a few weeks ago and determined that "his presence would not be necessary."

Charlie Benn, the tribe's director of administration; Donald Kilgore, the tribe's attorney general; and Nell Rogers, the tribe's planner, described their initial dealings with Abramoff as positive. They said the tribe hired him in the wake of the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 in order to protect their burgeoning gaming operation.

In press accounts, Martin often boasted of Abramoff's alleged influence among top GOP leaders in Washington and even defended him at the onset of McCain's investigation. But the Choctaw witnesses yesterday said they changed their mind after the FBI approached them last summer with evidence that the tribe may have been defrauded by the lobbyist, who worked at two different law and lobbying firms over the past decade.

Since then, the witnesses said the tribe has cooperated with the parallel FBI and Senate investigations. But in an unusual arrangement that doesn't appear to have been extended to the five other tribes who were former clients of Abramoff, the committee agreed not to disclose certain information about the Mississippi Choctaws' public activities.

The deal was brokered by C. Bryant Rogers, the tribe's longtime outside counsel, who appeared at the hearing although he didn't provide any testimony. No committee members asked him questions either.

McCain appeared to gloss over the issue, backing the tribe's right to participate in "our great democracy." But Dorgan and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) pressed the Choctaw witnesses to detail how much they spent on Abramoff -- a figure they couldn't immediately provide -- and to explain what they got in return, something they would only describe as "federal lobbying and grassroots advocacy."

"Our efforts in this regard have historically been successful," said Benn, who works in Chief Martin's office.

Nell Rogers, the tribe's primary contact with Abramoff, sought to distance the tribe from suggestions that their money was used for ethically questionable practices. She said the tribe "never authorized" the use of $25,000 to finance a golf trip for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), wasn't aware that $10,000 was used to help Republican activist Ralph Reed and "did not contribute" $25,000 in order to attend a White House meeting with President George W. Bush.

"No tribal representative attended that meeting," she testified. She acknowledged that the tribe gave the money to the Republican group Americans for Tax Reform but that it was never intended to support the meeting. The tribe was invited to the May 9, 2001, event but chose not to attend, she told the committee.

Rogers also said the tribe's lobbying efforts are not funded by casino profits, a defense Reed has offered in order to explain why he accepted $1.15 million from a gaming tribe when he says he opposes all forms of gambling. The Choctaws' donation was funneled through the tax group, headed by Grover Norquist, another Republican activist.

"The tribe decided years ago that its core governmental operations, including public relations and related public affairs activities that were administered by the office of the chief, would not be funded with gaming revenues," Rogers testified. "In this regard, none of the funds the tribe paid to Americans for Tax Reform for various purposes ... were generated by the tribe's gaming operation."

Rogers did not elaborate on what these "various purposes" were.

Documents released by the committee that might shed light on the matter were occasionally blacked out but some showed that Abramoff, Scanlon and Reed were opposing tribal casinos in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. The Mississippi Choctaws' operation could be threatened by these other tribes, something the tribe alluded to, but didn't outright acknowledge, in its testimony.

Another witness said Abramoff "lied" to her about his dealings with the Choctaws. Amy Ridenour, the director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, said her group had a long relationship with Chief Martin and accepted their money to further tribal interests.

But she told the committee that Abramoff, a longtime personal friend, abused the tribe and her trust. Ridenour said the trip for the "member of Congress" -- she never mentioned DeLay by name -- was never intended as a golf outing but it turned into one when Abramoff took control.

"The trip seems to be very different from what I expected," she testified.

She also willingly accepted $1 million from the tribe under the guises that Abramoff would use it for a public outreach campaign on Indian gaming. She distributed $500,000 to Capital Campaign Strategies only to find out much later that the company was owned in part by Abramoff in violation of the center's conflict of interest policy that he signed. And he never produced any work for the project, she said, even after taking a $450,000 cut for his personal charity, the Capital Athletic Foundation.

"I completely trusted Jack," she said.

Two former colleagues of Abramoff refused to testify, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Kevin Ring and Shawn Vasell are Washington lobbyists who used work for Republican members of Congress.

"I'm sorry that two young men like yourselves engaged in such activities that you come before this committee and invoke your constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment," McCain told them. "We had hoped that you would cooperate with the committee. Obviously, you have chosen not to do so, which again is your right."

A third witness, Brian Mann, also invoked the Fifth. He was a former director of the American International Center, a "think tank" set up by Scanlon that accepted some tribal donations. It was not clear if the Choctaws gave money to the group.

David Gross, another former director, and Aaron Stetter, a former associate of Scanlon, did provide some testimony. Stetter said he provided "phone scripts" in the name of phony Christian organizations that urged people to oppose tribal casinos in Texas, Louisiana and Michigan.

Gross, a former lifeguard, construction worker and self-described preschool mentor, said he was "embarrassed" to be caught up in the scandal. "The Lakota Indians have a word, wasichu, which aptly describes all of us right now," he said. Wasichu is usually translated as "takes the fat" or a "greedy person."

Committee Exhibits:
Part 1 | Part 2

Witness List/Testimony:
Oversight Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the In Re Tribal Lobbying Matters, Et Al (June 22, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - http://www.choctaw.org