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Interior drawn into Senate committee's lobbying probe

As the Senate Indian Affairs Committee gets ready for its fourth hearing on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a close associate of Interior Secretary Gale Norton is being drawn into the investigation.

Italia Federici is the president of a Republican environmental group that Norton started in the early 1990s. Federici also worked on Norton's unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1996.

When Norton joined the Bush administration in 2001, she cut ties to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. But Federici continued to maintain close contact with Interior officials -- including former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles -- on issues that affected Abramoff's wealthy tribal clients.

One of those former clients, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, is the subject of the upcoming hearing on the Abramoff scandal. In advance of the hearing, the committee prepared a subpoena for Federici, according to an October 20 story in Roll Call, a publication that focuses on Congressional issues.

The hearing was to take place today but has since been pushed back to November 2. According to Roll Call, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the committee chairman, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, also prepared subpoenas for a former employee of Michael Scanlon, a public relations executive who charged tribes high fees for his services, as well as a former lawyer for the Coushattas.

The Coushattas paid Abramoff and Scanlon $32 million for lobbying and public relations services over three years. Federici also benefited -- at Abramoff's direction, the tribe donated $150,000 to CREA.

Federici, for her part, contacted Interior about a proposed tribal casino that would compete with the Coushatta's existing casino. A February 2002 memo warned of efforts by conservative Republicans to influence gaming and land-into-trust, issues that are not part of CREA's stated mission.

"Just wanted to give you a heads-up about what I've been hearing," Federici wrote, enclosing press clippings about the proposed casino and its affect on the Coushattas.

Abramoff also pressed Federici to contact Interior about the proposed casino. "Please let Steve [Griles] know about this. Thanks so much Italia!" he wrote in a February 2003 as the department was considering the deal that his client opposed.

And Wayne Smith, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs official who was in charge of gaming and land-into-trust before being ousted, said the White House told Interior to pay attention to Abramoff because of his connections to conservative Republicans. Smith said Federeci related Abramoff's concerns through Doug Domenech, the department's White House liaison.

"Doug would come down and say, 'Italia called and Jack wants this,"' Smith told The Denver Post for a July 19 story. "That's how it all happened internally."

The Post further reported that Federeci pressed the Coushatta cause by trying to get Lovelin Poncho, the former chairman of the tribe, to meet with Norton. Although the meeting never happened, she accepted a $50,000 check from the tribe.

Later, she arranged a dinner at a home of a CREA supporter in Washington, D.C., where Poncho and Norton finally met. A year later, the tribe made another $100,000 donations to CREA. But Federeci told The Denver Rocky Mountain News that the meeting had nothing do to with gaming.

"That connection only exists in the minds of our critics," she said in an interview.

Nevertheless, these types of contacts are already the subject of an internal investigation at Interior. The department's Inspector General is trying to determine whether lobbying by people like Federici and Abramoff influenced the Indian gaming process.

"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," Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said at an April 27 hearing before McCain's committee.

Once McCain concludes the investigation, the committee will issue a report on the lobbying scandal and "come up with recommendations to do whatever is necessary" to prevent it from happening again.

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

Relevant Links:
Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy -
Coushatta Tribe -