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Senate committee to hold hearing on tribal lobbying

A highly anticipated hearing on the lobbying practices involving tribes that paid millions to Republican interests will be held next month.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee scheduled the oversight hearing September 14. The witness list has not been released publicly but is expected to include some of the lobbyists, consultants and other parties who have been the subject of scrutiny for high fees they accepted from tribal clients.

The committee has met at least twice in secret to authorize subpoenas as part of an ongoing investigation. In closed executive sessions in June and July, the panel voted to compel the testimony of some of the lobbyists involved.

The step was unprecedented for a committee that prides itself on non-partisanship. But Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned about the high fees some tribes have paid.

"The committee's oversight responsibilities are not just over legislation affecting Indian tribes and their members but over allegations of improprieties, wrongdoing, and misconduct that affects them," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), the committee's chairman.

"These charges, if proven to be true, are very grave, and warrant the most serious review," added Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the committee's vice-chairman.

The probe centers on the $45 million that four tribes gave to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist, and Michael Scanlon, a close associate who ran a public relations shop. Abramoff, a top fundraiser for George W. Bush, and Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have close ties to Republican leaders.

News reports of the high fees led to the ouster of Abramoff from the law and lobbying firm of Greenberg Traurig. The firm said Abramoff, who brought tribal clients to the firm after leaving his previous employer, failed to disclose his financial relationship with Scanlon. Abramoff has denied any wrongdoing.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) became alarmed after learning about the fees. As one of the chief proponents of campaign finance reform and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), he is concerned that money meant for tribal programs is instead going to lobbyists. All the tribes involved run successful gaming operations.

McCain's staff from the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, has largely been responsible for the investigation. They have asked the tribes involved to turn over documents, contracts and other information.

Some tribes, like the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and the Coushatta Tribe of Lousiana, have welcomed the probe. Tribal members say their money has been wasted on Abramoff, whose influence rests with members of Congress, and Scanlon, who appears to have focused on state-related gaming matters and who funneled tribal money to Republican and conservative causes.

Kevin Gover, a law professor at Arizona State University, said he questioned the large sums the tribes paid. As head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the last three years of the Clinton administration, he had been accused of being too close to lobbyists seeking casinos and federal recognition for their clients.

But, in an earlier interview, he called Senate investigation "a bit paternalistic" because he said tribes should be responsible for their own affairs. A Saginaw Chippewa official who paid the lobbyists a reported $10 million was voted out of office by tribal members. Coushatta tribal members are trying to oust two leaders responsible for paying a reported $32 million to the lobbyists.

"Frankly, the fact that the tribes themselves were making a political issue of it in their own tribal elections is exactly how the process should work," he said. "It hardly seems worth it to interfere with the tribes' choices," he said of efforts to rein in tribal spending

It is unclear which, if any, tribal leaders will testify next month. Press reports suggested that McCain was unhappy with Mississippi Choctaw Tribe for allegedly refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin has defended Abramoff's work and, in June, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) confirmed that tribes were not the subject of the subpoenas.

The fourth tribe involved is the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians from California, which contributed $100,000 to the Republican Party in 2001 in hopes of meeting with Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The tribe's chairman, Richard Milanovich, is prominent in Republican circles in his state.

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