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Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Scandal That Keeps Giving

The federal investigation into Republican uber lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, is the scandal that just keeps giving.

Reporter Susan Schmidt, in today's Washington Post, documents the long, circuitous machinations of Abramoff and his associate, Mike Scanlon, as they collected money from some Indian tribes to promote their casino interests in Congress at the expense of other, smaller tribes. And worse, to do so, they used the anti-gambling Christian Right to write the letters, lean on elected officials, even up to the White House, and to unwittingly do their dirty work.

It seems that a small, impoverished tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaws, a group of about 200 Native Americans spread out across rural Louisiana, wanted to set up a casino in Vinton, Louisiana, near the Texas border. They are a pretty modest group. They didn't win federal recognition as a tribe until 1995; and so they don't even own a reservation. But they knew that setting up their own casino could improve the tribe's fortunes, as gambling had for so many other Native American tribes.

The obstacle they encountered, which brought down on them the opposition of the heavy guns in the Republican Party and the Christian Right, was that the location they picked for their casino, and reservation, was only an hour ride from a similar casino in Kinder, Louisiana, already being operated by a rival tribe, the Coushatta.

The Coushatta, a powerful, wealthy, and well-connected tribe, ran a highly profitable operation. They were determined to protect their business from the competition; and they had deep pockets and friends in high places, namely Abramoff. Of course, they bought that friendship for $32 million over a three year period.

Jack Abramoff is the far sighted Republican operative who recognized how lucrative Indian support could be for Republicans, and himself, and was the one who approached tribal leaders to convince them that they needed to expand their traditional support of Democrats to the new conservative Republican majority in Congress.

He was wildly successful at it, not a mean trick considering how many of these newly minted conservative Republican congressmen were actually opposed to gambling and drew their support from the morals crowd.

Not to worry, Abramoff somehow even managed to snare the Christian Right in his smarmy plans. By the time the federal investigation finishes on this one, nobody's going to emerge looking like a moral paragon.

Abramoff encouraged the Coushattas to contribute $225,00 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), founded by Gale Norton, before she became Secretary of the Department of the Interior in 2000. Most real environmentalists regard CREA as a Republican attempt to put a positive spin on mining interests out west. Norton was ultimately the official who had to make the decision on whether the Jena Band could operate their casino in Vinton. To her credit, Interior ultimately did approve their casino plan, but not before a lot of convoluted lobbying went on and a lot of money passed hands, enriching all kinds of conservative candidates and Christian Right groups.

In addition to getting the support of key conservative lawmakers, such as Tom DeLay, Majority Leader in Congress; Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House; and Roy Blunt, of Montana, who is Majority Whip in the House, Abramoff also managed to enlist the support of Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed to lobby against the Jenas.

Indeed, Reed received $4 million from Abramoff to fight the expansion of gambling in Louisiana. Both Reed and Dobson swear they didn't know the money they received from Abramoff actually came from gambling interests. But there were many advantages to opposing the gambling interests of the Jenas while supporting it for the Coushattas. Here's the money quote from Schmidt's article:

"Meantime, the spoils of the lobbying war have been bountiful.

Tribal money bolstered the campaign coffers of many members of Congress. Dobson had the opportunity to flex grass-roots muscle that he would later use to mobilize evangelicals for Bush's reelection. Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, quietly received as much as $4 million to whip up public sentiment against expansion of gambling in Louisiana and Texas. Reed's efforts, in turn, boosted support for a congressman from Louisiana who was elected last year to the U.S. Senate.

Abramoff profited, as well. He and Michael Scanlon, the public affairs executive he recommended to the tribe, were paid $32 million over three years by the Coushattas."

For that money, the Christian groups, and the conservative lawmakers, wrote letters and lobbied both the White House and Gale Norton, and brought all the pressure they could bear to getting a ruling against granting casino rights to the Jenas. They did this mostly on the grounds that they were against the expansion of gambling, not because they directly supported the Coushatta's casino. Indeed, Reed and Dobson probably had no idea that, by opposing the Jenas, they were aiding another gaming interest. Many of the elected officials, however, probably did know what they were doing because they had taken plenty of money into their campaign coffers from the Coushatta tribe. Norton's deputy, at Interior, J. Steven Griles, was heavily involved in aiding Abramoff. He's since resigned from Interior and gone back to private consulting. But while he served as deputy, he acted as a go between to try to drum up support for Abramoff and the Coushattas both at Interior and in the White House. His relationship with the head of CREA, Italia Federici, is also under investigation.

The first casino proposal by the Jenas was turned down, but they came back with a second proposal for a site in Logansport, Louisiana. The second proposal won support from career civil service officials at Interior and finally the Inspector General, Michael G. Rossetti openly clashed with Griles, stating that he did not want Secretary Norton's decision making process to be influenced by "outside people." I think that means people like Griles, Federici, and Abramoff.

The Jenas, no dummies, also learned an important civics lesson in the way the American system really works. They went out and hired another big lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, to fight for them and that's how they ended up with the second proposal for Logansport finally succeeding.

The story doesn't have a happy ending for the plucky underdog, however, It seems that, although the Jenas had the support of former Republican Governor of Louisiana, Mike Foster, when he left office, he dumped the whole state approval process in the lap of the new governor , Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Now, the whole thing is stalled and the Jena still don't have a casino.

This whole thing stinks of big money, political cronyism, and hypocrisy. Here you have conservatives who tell their supporters they are opposed to the expansion of gambling. They run on anti-gambling platforms and then they take money hand over fist from gambling interests. Whether its Tom DeLay killing a bill that would curtail gambling interests, or Jack Abramoff enlisting Christian groups to write letters to lobby against granting a casino to a small tribe, all in the interests, not of curtailing gambling, but of protecting a larger and more powerful tribe from competition, the corruption in big money Republican circles is starting to stink like three day old fish.

This could be their Dan Rostenkowski moment.

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