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High-priced lobbyist scam linked to lawmakers

Public relations consultant Michael Scanlon refuses to answer questions at Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. Photo © NSM.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) talks with Albert Alvidrez and Carlos Hisa (r) of the Tigua Tribe of Texas after hearing. Photo © NSM.
A Senate committee's investigation into two Washington insiders accused of bilking tribes of more than $66 million spread to members of Congress on Wednesday as a Texas tribe told of a costly political campaign aimed at reopening its shuttered casino.

Before a packed hearing room, representatives of the Tigua Tribe said they enlisted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations consultant Michael Scanlon in early 2002. At the time, Republican lawmakers and the state's Republican attorney general were seeking the immediate closure of the tribe's Class III gaming facility in El Paso.

Carlos Hisa, the tribe's lieutenant governor, and Marc Schwartz, the tribe's longtime consultant, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that Abramoff and Scanlon hatched a plan to keep the casino going. At a cost of $4.2 million, whittled down from an initial figure of $5.7 million, Operation Open Doors would ensure the tribe could continue gaming without interference from the state, they testified.

Key to the plan were Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who were in charge of the 2002 Help America Vote Act at the time. Hisa and Schwartz said they were told the two lawmakers would insert language into the bill to benefit the tribe.

Dodd had been "greased," Schwartz told the committee. Ney was just one of many Republicans to whom Abramoff claimed closed ties, boasting of influence that went "all the way to the president of the United States," Hisa testified.

But the costly gamble unraveled as the months dragged on and the tribe was forced to lay off more than 700 employees when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the casino closed. Yet Abramoff and Scanlon repeatedly assured the tribe the bill would pass with the pro-tribal language, Hisa and Schwartz said.

It finally became clear nothing was going to happen when President Bush signed the legislation in October 2002, with Dodd and Ney at his side. "You can only imagine the sheer disappointment we felt about these events," Schwartz said.

Abramoff blamed Dodd for the failure of the $4.2 million plan, Schwartz testified. Dodd, he said, "went back on his word" and removed the language from the final bill.

Ney also blamed Dodd, according to Schwarz and Hisa. During a conference call with tribal leaders shortly before the bill's passage, Ney expressed outrage, Schwarz said.

But Dodd denied any knowledge of the proposal yesterday. He issued a statement that was read by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the incoming vice-chairman of the committee, during the hearing.

"I don't know Jack Abramoff of Mike Scanlon," the statement said. "So any representations they might have made without my knowledge regarding me and efforts at recognition of the Tigua Tribe are categorically wrong and false."

According to Dodd, Ney's staff and Lottie Shackelford, the vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, approached his office "during the waning hours of negotiations over the HAVA legislation" about including the Tiguas in the bill. "The suggestion was summarily rejected," the statement said.

But Ney responded that he only agreed to the provision because Abramoff assured him Dodd was behind it. "Jack Abramoff repeatedly lied to advance his own financial interests," Ney said in a statement. "I too was misled."

Hisa and Schwarz further testified that they now believe Abramoff and Scanlon helped generate public support to close the casino by working with Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed, a personal friend of Abramoff. The tribe knew Reed was leading opposition in Texas but didn't know their paid lobbyists were behind it as well.

"A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes," Hisa said at the hearing. "They did everything behind our backs."

Scanlon appeared before the committee yesterday but did not testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Abramoff did the same during a late-September hearing.

Retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) said he was personally offended by Scanlon's actions. "For 400 years, people have been cheating Indian tribes, so you're not the first one," Campbell told him. "You're the problem, buddy, with what is happening to American Indians."

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the incoming chairman of the committee, said the investigation into Abramoff and Scanlon will continue. "I pledge," he said, "that we will not stop until the complete truth is told."

Campbell, who steps down in January, suggested the committee look into the $300,000 in political donations Abramoff urged the Tiguas to make. He wanted to know whether Abramoff and Scanlon are connected in any way to the groups that received the money.

After the hearing, Campbell said the committee was proceeding at a deliberate pace as to not step on the Department of Justice's investigation into the two men. A grand jury has been convened at least once and has subpoenaed information from the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, another tribe involved. Campbell did not know the status of that investigation.

Campbell said he understood why Scanlon wouldn't want to answer questions about the scandal but couldn't figure out why Scanlon and Abramoff won't explain why they treated their clients with contempt. "I was amazed at the lack of remorse," he told reporters.

Relevant Links:
Speaking Rock Casino, Tigua Tribe -

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Supreme Court won't review Texas casino case (October 8, 2002) | Texas battles against tribes questioned (June 19, 2002) | Supreme Court lets Tigua Tribe be sued (June 5, 2001) | Tigua Tribe loses gaming appeal (November 2, 2000)