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Abramoff Scandal
Abramoff scandal high on agenda at gaming conference

The Jack Abramoff scandal and its impact on tribal nations were hot topics as the Western Indian Gaming Conference opened in Palm Springs, California, on Wednesday.

A week after the Abramoff pled guilty to defrauding tribes, attempting to bribe a member of Congress and evading federal taxes, the disgraced lobbyist continued to dominate the agenda. The tone of the meeting was set early in the morning during an introductory speech by Richard Milanovich, the chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

The tribe, based in Palm Springs, was one of Abramoff's clients and is named in court papers as attempting to influence a U.S. Congressman on legislative and other issues. Milanovich opposed the hiring of Abramoff but apologized for his tribe's role in the scandal anyway.

"It really pains me, hurts me to know that the fallout from that is affecting all of Indian Country," he told attendees.

Other tribal leaders said there was no need to apologize. "This is other people causing the ruckus, not you," said Danny Tucker, the chairman of the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians from California.

But speakers warned repeatedly of the negative impacts facing tribes. They said that opponents of Indian gaming are seizing on the scandal in hopes of tarring the entire industry.

"It's tougher now," said Ernie Stevens, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. "People are going to try to use Indian Country as a scapegoat."

Anthony Miranda, the chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which sponsors the conference, said tribes weren't alone in being "victimized" by Abramoff. He called on tribal leaders to take control by going to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers and other officials directly.

"Tribes need to walk the halls of Congress themselves and not send representatives," he said in his annual State of Tribal Nations address.

A panel of tribal advocates said the controversy will prompt Congress to enact lobbying reforms. "The timing is there, the terrain is there," said Tom Rodgers, a Washington lobbyist and member of the Blackfeet Nation.

Bills have already been introduced to tighten lobbying practices. John Tahsuda, an aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said tribes should be prepared for more.

"It's entirely possible that additional measures will be proposed" by McCain, the sponsor of one lobbying reform bill, Tahsuda said.

The Abramoff affair started out as investigation into the alleged bilking of several tribes. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held five hearings to address the role and involvement of wealthy tribes who spent millions on Abramoff and his former partner, Michael Scanlon.

As a result of guilty pleas by Abramoff and Scanlon, the tribes will receive upwards of $40 million in restitution. But the inquiry is far from over and has turned to members of Congress and their former aides, some of whom are implicated in a corruption scheme.

Despite the negative atmosphere, tribal leaders an advocates said they will continue to participate in the political process. Along with individual tribes, organizations like CNIGA and NIGA have remained active at the state and federal level as proposals to change the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act have surfaced.

"We were just trying to help our people," Milanovich said of the decision to hire the ex-lobbyists.

Stevens said lawyers and lobbyists continue to play a role in Washington but distanced these efforts from those of Abramoff's "I have been doing this for 10 years," he said. "I have never seen Jack Abramoff in our camp."

"We have nothing to apologize for," added Rogers, who runs his own lobbying firm.

The conference concludes today with a presentation by the National Indian Gaming Commission and the Department of Justice on the Bush administration's proposal to amend the Johnson Act in order to limit the types of casino machines that can be played at tribal casinos. Tribal leaders are opposing the changes.

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

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

Relevant Links:
California Nations Indian Gaming Association -