Abramoff Scandal
Lobbying scandal a wake up call for Indian Country

History is filled with many examples of Indian people being ripped off but the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal sets a new standard because some of the tribes involved were more than willing participants.

Flush with gaming revenues, the tribes actively sought to influence how decisions were being made at the federal and state level. And they were willing to pay a high price, forking over millions of dollars in order to gain access to top politicians.

In an of itself, such activity is common. What has made the controversy different is the admitted subterfuge by some of the tribes involved and their willingness to fight other tribes in order to get ahead.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native rights activist based in Washington, D.C., gave these tribal leaders and their employees a "Mantle of Shame" award for hiring Abramoff and his associates "as attack dogs against other Indian tribes and people" in a recent column for Indian Country Today

"Some of these tribal people and workers are being used for investigative purposes as 'Abramoff's Indian victim' and may totally escape retribution for their part in his excesses and their own," she wrote on December 22. "They likely will escape indictments, but have been and will be mentioned in other court documents and as footnotes in at least one tell-all book."

Some of the activity is traceable because federal law requires lobbyists to file reports on their work. Abramoff and his firm always noted the identities of their tribal clients and the issues they were pressing in the nation's capital.

But the more sneaky work occurred under the guise of "grass-roots" lobbying that isn't subject to the same requirements. Some of the tribes -- at Abramoff's urging -- poured millions into secretive campaigns in hopes of blocking gaming efforts by fellow tribes.

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, for example, spent at least $30 million to limit gaming in Texas, where two tribes struggled to keep their casinos open amid efforts by state officials to shut them down.

Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon subsequently solicited money from the Texas tribes without disclosing that they had "collected millions of dollars in fees from the Louisiana tribe to oppose all gaming in the Texas legislature," according to federal court papers.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians also spent millions to restrict gaming in Alabama, where a rival tribe is based. The Choctaws concealed their involvement by funneling the money through non-profit organizations that passed it along to other individuals or groups.

"Sometimes that's called laundering," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

So far, not many tribal leaders have been willing to acknowledge the role they played. William Worfel, the former vice chairman of the Coushatta Tribe, apologized at a hearing in November 2005 for questioning the integrity of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, but didn't say whether he was sorry for working against the Texas tribes.

At a June 2005 heaing, representatives of the Mississippi Choctaws declined to elaborate on their "federal lobbying and grassroots advocacy" and couldn't always explain where their money went. Chief Philip Martin, who had initially defended Abramoff, didn't testify before the committee.

Throughout the hearings on the scandal, Dorgan, McCain and other prominent advocates have painted the tribes as victims of greedy and opportunistic lobbyists. But not everyone has been willing to accept that characterization.

Richard Milanovich, the chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a former Abramoff client, struggled at a hearing in September 2004 to describe how he felt about his tribe's involvement. Like the others, the tribe spent millions on Abramoff although none of the money was used to fight other tribes.

"I do not think it is necessary [to say] that the tribe or the tribes have been victimized. I do not like that term," said Milanovich, who opposed the hiring of Abramoff but was outvoted by other tribal council members. "We were not victimized. We were, I am not sure what the proper term is, but we entered into a business arrangement not fully understanding, or those that approved it, did not fully understand what was taking place."

Others say the scandal is forcing tribes to re-examine their lobbying expenditures. Tex Hall, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, suggested the money could be put to better use.

"This is a pretty big wake up call to all of Indian Country to not only think about what you are getting for the huge retainers you are being asked to fork over each month to your D.C. firms, but also to think about whether we Indian tribes can really make an effort to do the jobs ourselves with Indian talent from back home," Hall said yesterday after Abramoff pleaded guilty.

Relevant Documents:
US v. Abramoff | Abramoff Plea Agreement | Department of Justice Press Conference

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