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More hearings slated in tribal lobbyist scandal

SILENT: Jack Abramoff confers with attorney Abbe Lowell before refusing to answer questions. Photo © NSM.

ANGRY: Richard Milanovich, chairman of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, listens to hearing. Photo © NSM.

EVASIVE: Chris Petras, former Saginaw Chippewa legislative director, can't recall much of dealings with lobbyists. Photo © NSM.
An ongoing investigation into the lobbying activities of two Washington insiders who wooed tribes with promises of influence is even worse than expected, leading members of a Senate panel said on Wednesday.

Six tribes gave at least $66 million to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) said at a crowded oversight hearing. That doesn't include the amount the tribes were billed by Abramoff's former law firm and the campaign contributions the tribes were told by the pair to make, Campbell pointed out.

"While our investigation is continuing, we have come to some very disturbing conclusions," Campbell said. "The truth is worse -- much worse."

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which Campbell chairs, has been looking into allegations that the tribes spent exorbitant amounts for questionable services offered by the lobbyists. The panel is also investigating whether the Abramoff and Scanlon interfered with tribal elections in order to install candidates who steered multi-million contracts to them.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), whose staff on the Senate Commerce Committee has been leading the probe, was so eager to start the hearing that he rushed the committee through three bills. He then read from a lengthy statement in which he slammed the lobbyists for exploiting tribes by promising them access to Washington officials while at the same time working against tribal interests.

"We will get to the bottom of this and, hopefully, in the end, our efforts will help other tribes avoid their own tragic tale in this shameful chapter of American history," McCain said, drawing loud applause from the audience.

Other members took turns lashing at the lobbyists before any witness was called. "This is about as bad as it gets," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota). "I believe there is criminal conduct here."

"It is a cesspool of greed," added Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who urged the committee to follow the scandal "to the very end."

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said Abramoff and Scanlon hatched a "cynical scam" to connive tribes out of money based on an "insatiable desire to line their own pockets" even as they held tribal clients in contempt.

Campbell said he was personally offended by e-mails Abramoff and Scanlon traded as they sought to obtain more and more business. He cited documents, produced by the Greenberg Traurig law firm, in which the pair described tribal clients as "monkeys," "mofos", "f'in troglodytes," "idiots" and "morons."

"They don't sound the comments of an educated man," Campbell observed. "They sound like the comments of somebody out of 150 years ago and [sound like] some form of bigotry."

"I would have thought you would have had much more sensitivity to Indian people," Campbell said, drawing a parallel between Abramoff's Jewish ancestry and the indignities Native people have suffered.

But Abramoff, who remained secluded in a private hearing room until he was called before the panel, refused to respond to any questions posed by the lawmakers. He repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and frequently conferred with Abbe Lowell, a high-priced Washington attorney who attempted, at the last minute, to stop the public hearing but was rejected by Campbell.

"In light of the correspondence that occurred between the committee and my counsel, including the committee's decision not to make any provisions of my testimony through a grant of legislative immunity," Abramoff told the committee, "I have no choice but to assert my various constitutional privileges against having to testify."

Scanlon, who is apparently a resident of Delaware, didn't attend the hearing at all because he refused to accept a subpoena to testify. "He will come up for air sometime," Campbell said. McCain urged the committee to consider holding Scanlon in contempt.

The tribes affected by the scandal are the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians from California, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Tigua Tribe of Texas and Sandia Pueblo of New Mexico. All are cooperating with the probe, lawmakers said, even though some tribal leaders had initially defended Abramoff.

Yesterday's hearing only focused on the first two tribes and their activities with Scanlon's public relations company. The $66 million went to the firm, of which $21 million Scanlon shared with Abramoff, senators said.

Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich and Saginaw Chippewa Subchief Bernie Sprague each testified that they opposed working with the lobbyists but were outvoted by other tribal officials. Only later, they said, did they discover that Scanlon's company had been working to ensure those officials got elected.

"[W]e now control 9 out of the 12 seats on the [Saginaw Chippewa] council," Scanlon wrote in a congratulatory e-mail to Abramoff.

"There is not a word in my language that is strong enough to describe what these people have done to my tribe," Sprague told the panel. "These unsavory characters who lie, deceive, and steal from Indian tribes need to be exposed for who and what they are."

Milanovich, who later learned that Scanlon backed a campaign to oust him as chairman, struggled to describe the effect the outsiders' influence had on his tribe. "We have been hurt dramatically," he said at one point, trying not to paint the tribe as "victims."

Christopher Petras, the former legislative director for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe at the time of the Abramoff-Scanlon engagement, was also called to testify but his answers didn't satisfy members of the committee. He sought to downplay any involvement with the lobbyists and repeatedly said he didn't recall conversations he had with them even as e-mails he received were flashed on two large video screens.

Future hearings are planned on the matter, said Campbell, who is retiring and will likely hand control to McCain if the Republicans retain their majority in the Senate. The hearings will focus on the other tribes involved.

Relevant Documents:
Sen. McCain Statement | Witness List / Written Testimony