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Republican tied to Abramoff pushes anti-gaming bill

A Republican connected to the Jack Abramoff tribal lobbying scandal introduced a bill on Thursday aimed at stopping the spread of Indian gaming.

Freshman Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) landed in the middle of the controversy for his efforts against the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians. The tribe's attempt to open a casino in Louisiana, a state heavily dominated by gaming, was heavily opposed by a former tribal client of Abramoff's.

Although Vitter has claimed he didn't act on Abramoff's behalf, he is taking his anti-gaming views nationwide with a bill dubbed the "Common Sense Indian Gambling Reform Act." He cited a need to clamp down on the expansion of the $18.5 billion tribal casino industry.

"There are 223 Indian tribes across the nation operating 41 casinos in 28 states, including three in Louisiana," Vitter said in a statement. "With more than 30 applications for off-reservation casinos pending nationally, we must make common sense reforms to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to protect our local and state economies."

The legislation, a companion to one introduced in the House last month, isn't Vitter's first foray into the subject. In late 2003, while serving in the House, he inserted language in an appropriations bill that warned against "reservation shopping" by tribes.

The harsh wording was supported by top Republican leaders, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is under fire for his ties to Abramoff. But it wasn't until the tribal scandal broke in early 2004 that the extent of Vitter's own connections to the disgraced lobbyist were fully known.

Vitter held a fundraiser in September 2003 at Abramoff's Washington, D.C., restaurant at the time the Interior appropriations bill was moving through the House. A month and $12,000 in campaign contributions later, the anti-tribal rider was filed.

When news reports questioned the timing of the events, Vitter denied involvement with Abramoff. But he later admitted that his office worked with Abramoff's law firm to draft the language that made it into the bill.

And, despite his opposition to gaming, he said he knew at the time that Abramoff represented wealthy gaming tribes. One was the Coushatta Tribe, which already operates a casino in Louisiana.

Yet the incident wasn't the only time Vitter unwittingly helped Abramoff and his interests. In 2002, Abramoff's partner, Michael Scanlon, touted Vitter's anti-gaming ties in a direct mail campaign. The effort, called the called Committee Against Gambling Expansion, was funded by the Coushattas.

The ties to Abramoff don't appear to have hurt Vitter, however, according to political analysts. The tribes involved, on the other hand, continue to be affected by the scandal.

The Coushatta Tribe filed a lawsuit against Abramoff and Scanlon seeking the return of the $32 million paid to the lobbyists. Some of the money came from health, education and other programs meant to benefit tribal members, according to news reports.

The tribe's former chairman, Lovelin Poncho, who supported Abramoff, has since left office. William Worfel, another Abramoff supporter, lost his bid for chairmanship, although he remains on the council. A third pro-Abramoff council member, was ousted in a primary election.

As for the Jena Band, the landless tribe is still pursuing its casino and won approval for an initial reservation despite opposition from Vitter and others in Louisiana. The tribe has since gone to court to force Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat whose main lobbyist in Washington used to work with Abramoff, to negotiate a Class III gaming compact.

Under the Common Sense Indian Gambling Reform Act, all compacts would have to be approved by a state's legislative body in addition to the governor. Some states, but not all, already follow this process.

The measure aims to give states and local governments more power to veto tribal casinos. It would impose new limits on the ability of tribes to acquire land for off-reservaion gaming, including an outright ban on out-of-state casinos.

Additionally, the bill targets a practice that is the subject of an Interior Department investigation. It bars tribes from opening casinos on lands taken into trust after the enactment of IGRA in 1988 unless the tribe stated, up front, that it intended to engage in gaming. Some tribes in Oklahoma have vastly expanded their gaming empires by exploiting this loophole.

The legislation also beefs up the National Indian Gaming Commission's budget, currently at $12 million, to $16 million. It requires the NIGC to approve the financial interests of casino investors, as well as conduct background checks of those investors.

The Senate version of bill, S.1260, was referred to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. On June 28, the committee is holding its second oversight hearing on the regulation of Indian gaming.

The House version, which has 10 co-sponsors, was referred to the House Resources Committee. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the committee, has held three hearings this year on off-reservation gaming.

Relevant Documents:
Common Sense Indian Gambling Reform Act (H.R.2353) | Vitter Statement

Relevant Links:
Sen. David Vitter -
Jena Band of Choctaw Indians -
Coushatta Tribe -