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Group presses NIGC on tribal lobbying scandal

The National Indian Gaming Commission is holding back information about its possible contacts with the key players in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a watchdog group said on Tuesday.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) announced the filing of a lawsuit to force the NIGC to reveal what it knows about Abramoff and Republicans with ties to the disgraced lobbyist. "The American public has a right to know what NIGC knew and what role administration officials played in these scandals," said Melanie Sloan, the non-profit group's executive director.

The lawsuit comes after CREW filed a Freedom of Information Act request on March 18 seeking "any contact" that NIGC may have had with a long list of players in the debacle. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana are among those whose names have surfaced in recent months as a Senate committee, federal investigators and the media have delved into the controversy.

NIGC quickly responded to the request a few days later but the answer wasn't what CREW wanted to hear. In a letter, a legal assistant told Sloan that it would take some time to locate and turn over any relevant records.

"The Commission has backlog of initial requests, as well as limited personnel resources, and our staff has not yet been able to conduct a search to determine whether there are records within the scope of your request," Jerrie L. Moore wrote on March 22. "Even if we do locate responsive records, additional time will be required to process them for release."

The letter meant that the NIGC wouldn't be able to fulfill the FOIA request within 20 working days as required by law. The delay prompted CREW to ask a federal judge to order the NIGC to "immediately" hand over any pertinent information. U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, who was nominated to the bench by President Bush, has been assigned to the case.

As the federal agency charged with regulating the $18.5 billion tribal casino industry, NIGC is in regular contact with lawyers and lobbyists who represent tribes and other gaming interests. The agency also hears from members of Congress who are concerned about casino projects.

It is not known whether NIGC dealt with Abramoff or his associates. None of the documents that have been made public by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee indicate Abramoff lobbied NIGC directly.

But the agency has definitely heard from people like DeLay and Hastert, who wrote a strongly-worded letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in June 2003 critical of "reservation shopping" by certain tribes. According to news reports, an associate of Abramoff drafted the letter on behalf of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, one of Abramoff's clients who opposed another tribe's effort to open a casino.

According to news reports, Abramoff and his associates later helped then-Rep. Vitter insert language into Interior's appropriations bill that mentioned NIGC by name and warned the agency to "implement fully the existing rules and regulations" regarding off-reservation casinos. Vitter was elected to the Senate last November and has continued to fight the casino sought by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, the tribe singled out in the letter to Norton and in the Interior bill.

NIGC officials, including chairman Phil Hogen, have not spoken publicly about the Abramoff scandal since it surfaced over a year ago. But Hogen has said the agency is concerned about protecting tribal gaming revenues from loss, theft or fraud. The six tribes who gave an estimated $82 million to Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon all operated casinos.

Hogen is scheduled to testify today at an oversight hearing on the regulation of Indian gaming before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Also on the witness list is Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney, who has launched its own investigation into the department's dealings with Abramoff and his associates.

Tom Heffelfinger, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, will testify as well. He helped create the Indian Gaming Working Group, an inter-agency task force that has played a role in the Abramoff investigation. The task force includes the NIGC, the Inspector General, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service.

Relevant Documents:
FOIA Request by CREW Response by NIGC | Hastert-DeLay Letter to Norton

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Commission -
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -