Abramoff Scandal
Radio show focuses on tribal lobbying practices

Tribal nations need to be represented in Washington, D.C., but changes in lobbying practices and the Jack Abramoff scandal have raised serious questions about the field, experts said this week.

Appearing on the nationally broadcast radio show Native America Calling, Cate Stetson, a Democratic lobbyist, said tribal lobbying has "changed dramatically" in the last 10 years alone. Tribes are fighting other tribes and spending millions to do it, she said on Monday's program.

"It's not just the fact that the lobbyists charged so much that's horrible, it's also the fact that tribes were, in some cases, paying lots of money to hurt other tribes or to prevent other tribes from getting something that I don't think they would have liked if someone had preventing them from getting," she added.

Richard Monette, a former Congressional aide and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from North Dakota, agreed there are problems. He said the expansion of the $19 billion gaming industry has raised the stakes.

"Today, with all the money being bandied about, we have a few friends and they vote with us," he observed. "But when the money is no longer there, it's a legitimate question of whether they will continue to be friends."

Monette said tribal leaders used to come to Washington and argue their views based on the facts. But with millions at issue, he said lobbying is no longer about the issues but about "who you know."

"When they left and they won an issue, it's often because they knew they were right, not because we had bought and sold some legislator, some senator or congressperson," he said.

Despite the negative aspects of the industry, Stetson, who owns a lobbying firm that represents tribes, and Monette, the director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center at the University of Wisconsin, said lobbyists play an important role for tribal governments to ensure that tribal voices are heard when important legislative and executive decisions are made in Washington.

"This is your way of making your needs known to the people who can make a difference," Stetson told listeners.

Not everyone agreed with the assessment. Bill, a caller from Alaska, said the Abramoff scandal, and lobbyists in general, disgusted him.

"The only bottom line is money, how much money can they get," he said of lobbyists. "They don't care whether we get what we need. You can go to any Native community and you're going to find Natives homeless, drunk and hungry. And these guys are spending millions and billions of our money."

Monette expressed reservations about tribal lobbying at the state level. With the exception of Public Law 280 states, where tribes are working to regain exclusive jurisdiction over their lands, he said tribes should stay out of most state-decision making.

Monette also recommended that tribes stop making campaign contributions to politicians of any party. He said tribes are making donations outright and are using lobbyists like Abramoff as a "conduit" for the donations.

"In a way [tribes] are paying the candidates themselves and their campaigns," Monette said on the program. "That's problematic," he added. "How would tribal members and tribal leaders like it if outside entities [like] state governments and the federal government [were] actually pumping money into a tribal election."

Another issue tribes need to consider is being more open about their lobbying activities, especially to tribal members, Monette said. That would help people understand why lobbyists are needed to draft legislation and monitor developments in Washington, he said.

Stetson and Monette added that the best lobbyists are not always hired guns. "The best people are the tribal leaders and the tribal individuals," Stetson said. "They know it and they care about it and they don't use the same boring words that lawyers and lobbyists get in the habit of saying and that legislators get in the habit of hearing."

In the Abramoff case, members of two tribes helped bring the issue to national attention. New leaders of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan fired Abramoff and his firm prior to news reports about the high fees that he and his partner Michael Scanlon charged. In Louisiana, members of the Coushatta Tribe questioned why their leaders were working with Abramoff and Scanlon before the scandal broke.

"They preyed on our political insecurities, economic insecurities and insecurities about each other," said new Coushatta Chairman Kevin Sickey at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing last month. Sickey defeated a pro-Abramoff tribal leader for the position in June.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, held five hearings on the scandal. They plan to continue the investigation to resolve unresolved allegations involving a New Mexico tribe and potential non-profit abuse.

Dorgan also wants the committee to look into Republican activists who have been linked to the scandal. His stance has prompted a number of negative news articles that have questioned his role as an investigator while detailing his dealings with Abramoff's former tribal clients.

November 17, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits

November 2, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

June 22, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits 1 | Exhibits 2 | Witness List / Testimony

November 17, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

September 29, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

Relevant Links:
Native America Calling - http://www.nativeamericacalling.com