McCain's circle targeted tribes in Abramoff scandal

A Democratic National Committee ad cites Sen. McCain's ties to gambling.
Associates of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) profited from the Jack Abramoff scandal by soliciting tribes who were victimized by the convicted lobbyist, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

McCain has said he first learned of Abramoff's questionable activities from "disgruntled" tribal members. He called an investigation in late February 2004 after The Washington Post reported that four tribes spent $45 million on the lobbyist's services.

But details reported by the Times indicate McCain's inner circle was closely tied to the affair. Just a week before the scandal broke, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan fired Abramoff and hired Scott Reed, a Republican political consultant and lobbyist who boasted of his ties to McCain.

"He had contacts I did not," Bernie Sprague, the tribe's former subchief, told the Times. "Initially, I think that the senator's office was doing Reed a favor by listening to me."

A few weeks after hiring Reed, McCain sent a letter to Sprague that described the lobbyist as "very helpful on the issue." The tribe paid Reed $56,000 in 2004 -- documents filed with the Senate Office of Public Records list "Senate investigation" as one of Chesapeake Enterprises' activities.

The fees were far less than those Abramoff demanded, and the tribe has continued to employ other Washington lobbyists. But at Abramoff's recent sentencing hearing, Sprague told a federal judge that the tribe is still feeling negative effects of the scandal, four years after it surfaced.

Another tribe that was involved in the scandal ended up paying nearly $1.3 million to another McCain supporter, the Times reported. After firing Abramoff, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hired Kent Hance, a former Democrat who served with McCain in the U.S. House, to work on the investigation.

David Sickey, the tribe's vice chairman, told the Times he was "dumbfounded" by the fees demanded by Hance's firm. "The very thing we were fighting seemed to be happening all over again -- these absurd amounts of money being paid," he said.

According to the Times, the tribe also hired Roy Fletcher, who was McCain's deputy campaign manager in 2000, to serve as its spokesperson during the investigation. The tribe gave $100,000 to John Weaver, McCain's chief political strategist at the time, but the Times said it was not clear why he received the money.

Hance, who has donated to McCain's 2008 campaign, defended his firm's work as "outstanding." The tribe ended its relationship with Hance in 2005.

In addition to discussing the Abramoff scandal, the lengthy Times story cited McCain's long relationship with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, one of Scott Reed's current clients. The paper quoted a "former senior campaign official" who said it was questionable for McCain to gamble at the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino when he was overseeing Indian gaming legislation in Congress.

"Do we really have to go to a casino? I don't think it’s a good idea. The base doesn't like it. It doesn't look good," the former official said he would tell McCain. "And good things don't happen in casinos at midnight."

"You worry too much," McCain reportedly responded.

McCain helped write the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which paved the way for the $28 billion tribal casino industry. He has been a longtime champion of self-determination and economic development.

He fought attempts to increase state oversight of Indian gaming during the 1990s and clashed with Republican colleagues who held less than favorable views of tribes. He was the only Republican senator who opposed the potential nomination of former senator Slade Gorton for a federal judgeship, due to Gorton's stance against tribal sovereignty.

McCain also campaigned for state voter approval of Arizona's tribal-state compact. He continues to call it a "model" agreement in Indian Country.

Despite his record, some tribal and Indian gaming leaders feel McCain started to turn against them after he lost the 2000 Republican presidential primary race. When he took over the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January 2005, he focused almost entirely on the Abramoff scandal, increased regulation of gaming and other issues closely related to gaming.

After clashing with the elected president of the National Indian Gaming, he refused to allow NIGA or its representatives to testify before the committee. He criticized another tribal leader who called the Abramoff investigation damaging to Indian Country.

As the committee continued to pursue Abramoff, McCain introduced a bill to overhaul IGRA. Amid heavy criticism from tribes, McCain defended the proposal and said non-Indians need to be protected when they visit tribal casinos.

"Ninety-nine percent of the patrons of these Indian gaming activities are non-Indians," McCain said at a September 2005 hearing. "So we have an obligation to non-Indians as well as Indians to make sure that these gaming activities are honest, straightforward and adequately regulated."

Since launching his 2008 presidential bid, McCain has declined contributions from tribes. He continues to accept contributions from lobbyists.

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