FEC official seeks to rein in tribal political donations

A Republican lawyer who played a key role in approving a redistricting plan engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), under scrutiny for his ties to Jack Abramoff, is going after tribes in his new position at the Federal Election Commission.

Hans von Spakovsky, the newest member of the FEC, posted a statement on the agency's web site this week that called on Congress to rein in tribal political donations. He said tribes are exploiting a "loophole" in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) that allows them to contribute an unlimited aggregate amount to politicians and political action committees.

"The main excuse given for not applying the FECA restrictions to Indian tribes is that they are 'sovereign' governments," von Spakovsky wrote in his two-page statement.

"That status gives them the right to impose tribal laws on their members and on their reservations," he continued. "But when they leave tribal lands, they have to abide by the same laws and regulations that apply to everyone else � and that should be particularly true when they participate in political campaigns that affect how all citizens are governed."

In taking a stand on what has become a hot issue in Washington, von Spakovsky broke with his fellow commissioners, who voiced support for tribal sovereignty principles at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing last week. FEC chairman Michael Toner and vice chairman Robert Lenhard declined to endorse legislative proposals that would limit tribal donations, although they said more disclosure of tribal activity is probably needed.

On the other hand, von Spakovsky says it's time for Congress to act now that Indian gaming has grown to a $20 billion industry, enabling tribes to contribute generously to politicians. "Although Congress probably did not contemplate this [gaming] issue in 1971, will it now regulate Indian tribes?" he wrote. "If not, why not? Is the political speech of Indian tribes involved in the gambling business not as 'corrupting' as that of corporations or labor unions?"

The strong words come only a month after von Spakovsky arrived at the FEC on January 9. He was not confirmed by the Senate, as is normal practice, however. Instead, he was installed by what is known as a recess appointment, which allowed President Bush to bypass the Senate's advise and consent process.

This is not the first time von Spakovsky has waded into controversy, either. Prior to joining the FEC, he was a Bush political appointee at the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. There, he approved the Texas redistricting -- drawn up by DeLay to ensure more Republicans were voted into office -- over the objection of staff attorneys who said the plan would dilute minority voting power.

DeLay himself is the subject of scrutiny for allegedly injecting corporate contributions into Texas elections in violation of state law. He also is said to be of interest to federal prosecutors handling the Jack Abramoff case, due to his close ties to the disgraced lobbyist.

Abramoff's clients included three wealthy tribes who were among the top tribal political donors in 2004, the year the scandal broke, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. DeLay accepted contributions from one of the tribes, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, for the Republican National Convention in 2000, and for his own political action committee.

The Choctaws also donated $250,000 to a questionable organization with ties to Abramoff and DeLay, The Washington Post reported last month. The U.S. Family Network, billed as a grassroots Christian group, was started by a former DeLay aide.

The Choctaws have since been hit with a subpoena as part of the Texas case against DeLay. Federal prosecutors, as part of the Abramoff probe, have subpoenaed records related to the U.S. Family Network, The National Journal reported this week.

The large sums of money involved in the scandal -- at least $84 million, according to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee -- and the equally large amounts tribes have contributed to politicians -- $25 million in the last five years, according to PoliticalMoneyLine -- have prompted some Republicans to turn their sights on tribes. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), who is seeking a two-year moratorium on new tribal casinos, has introduced a bill to close the tribal "loophole" cited by von Spakovsky.

In his statement, von Spakovsky identifies two possible avenues to "regulate" tribes. He said tribes could be subject to limits on the total amount of contributions they make, as proposed by the Rogers bill.

If that doesn't happen he said tribes should be required to form political action committees and register and report their contributions. "Similarly, all restrictions imposed on corporations that are involved in the gambling industry should apply to tribal organizations that are involved in the gambling industry," he wrote. "This is a matter of fundamental fairness and equity."

In the wake of Abramoff, tribal leaders are hoping to convince Congress that they are not the problem. "The tribes should not be singled out," Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in his State of Indian Nations speech earlier this month.

Hans von Spakovsky Statement:
Tribal Political Contributions (February 8, 2006)

FEC Advisory:
Indian Tribes (February 2, 2006)

Federal Elections Commission Opinions:
Advisory Opinion 1999-32 (January 28, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2000-05 (May 15, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2005-01 (March 14, 2005)

More Advisory Opinion 2005-01 Documents:
Advisory Opinion Draft A and Draft B | Tribe's Request for Advisory Opinion

Relevant Links:
Federal Election Commission - http://www.fec.gov
PoliticalMoneyLine - http://www.politicalmoneyline.com
Center for Responsive Politics - http://www.opensecrets.org