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Gaming leads to new concerns about lobbyists

Lobbyists who try to sway decisions at the Interior Department are under heightened scrutiny due to the expansion of the $18.5 billion and growing Indian gaming industry.

The stakes are high as tribes and their backers lobby for favorable decisions on federal recognition, off-reservation casinos and other gaming-related issues. In Connecticut alone, investors poured more than $20 million into two tribes in hopes of opening gaming establishments.

So far there is little evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of tribes, their lobbyists or federal officials. Investigations so far have uncovered a handful of "irregularities" but nothing to suggest improper access.

Still, Interior officials say they aren't taking any chances in light of the scandal over disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose tribal clients spent millions in hopes of derailing gaming efforts by other tribes. The key player in this emerging area is the department's Office of Inspector General, whose officials have recently testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about their concerns.

"My greatest fear is not that the integrity or accountability of Indian gaming will be compromised from inside the actual casinos, but rather by the horde of paid management advisors, consultants, lobbyists and financiers flocking to get a piece of the enormous amount of revenues being generated by Indian gaming," said Inspector General Earl E. Devaney at an April 27 hearing.

Just a couple of weeks later, Devaney's top aide confirmed that lobbyists are under heightened scrutiny. In a May 11 appearance, deputy inspector general Mary L. Kendall said her office "now includes in its scope of investigation an inquiry into any lobbying or other financial influences that might bear on the issue or program at hand, with a view toward targeting improper lobbying access and/or influence" at the department.

One example has already surfaced in connection with Abramoff. Devaney's office is examining contacts between top officials and the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group whose predecessor was founded by current Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Norton cut her ties with the group when she joined the Bush administration. But her top aides, including former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles, maintained close contacts with the organization on issues affecting tribal gaming. And the group's president, Italia Federici, is a close associate of Norton who worked on Norton's political campaigns back in Colorado.

A February 2002 memo from Federici to Eric Ruff, Norton's former communications director, highlights CREA's concern about gaming issues even though its mission says nothing about tribes. The document came as Interior was considering a gaming compact -- ultimately rejected -- that Abramoff's wealthy tribal clients opposed.

"You can see that [GOP lobbyist] Ralph Reed and his firm are involved somehow," Federici told Ruff in what she termed was a "heads-up about what I've been hearing."

"From what I have been told, Ralph," Federici said, "is bending the ear of Karl Rove and possibly even the President about land-into-trust and gaming issues."

The words had an impact at Interior further than Ruff, who eventually left the department to work at the Pentagon. Copies of the memo apparently were sent to "Dave B" -- David Bernhardt, a Colorado attorney who is now Norton's legal counsel; "Michael R" -- Michael Rosetti, who was Norton's former legal counsel and now works for a law and lobbying firm that represents gaming tribes; and "Wayne S" -- Wayne Smith, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs aide who was in charge of gaming and land-into-trust.

The memo might have gone unnoticed except for disclosures that CREA accepted at least $225,000 from Abramoff's tribal clients, including the tribe who opposed the gaming compact at issue. And when the casino came up a second time and officials were more conducive, Griles aggressively tried to shut it down and came armed with documents that he admitted were probably prepared by Abramoff, according to The Washington Post.

CREA's involvement was also noted by Abramoff himself in an e-mail to Federici in February 2003. "This will be a PR disaster as you can imagine, especially if for some reason Interior agrees to approve this deal," he wrote. "Please let Steve know about this. Thanks so much Italia!"

It is not known whether any of the Inspector General's investigations will lead to Abramoff, whose practice of using Republican activists like Reed, other organizations and even members of Congress to lobby for his clients has been well documented.

But one group, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is hoping to uncover more about Interior's contacts with lobbyists through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the National Indian Gaming Commission. The group named an extensive list of Republicans including Reed and Federici in its complaint filed in federal court.

Relevant Documents:
CREA Memo to Interior (February 21, 2002)

Relevant Links:
Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy -