News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Sunday, August 14, 2005 | News for Denton, Texas | AP: Texas

By ALICIA A. CALDWELL / Associated Press

Jose Lopez Jr. started working as a tribal dancer at age 9, in part to make money for his struggling family.

College was an unthinkable luxury. His family couldn't afford for him to trade time in a classroom for work. Then in the mid-1990s his Indian tribe, the Tiguas, opened the Speaking Rock casino just north of the Texas-Mexico border.

In the next 11 years, he saw his tribe go from bust to boom and back to bust. Fortunes swung on gambling's lure and, tribe members contend, died through the machinations of powerful Washington insiders.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon are at the center of a U.S. Senate investigation into whether the men schemed to swindle millions of dollars from six Indian tribes with casinos, including the Tiguas, with promises of Washington favors.

Abramoff was arrested Thursday after being indicted on federal fraud charges in connection with a deal to buy casino boats in Florida.

For the Tiguas, the tribe's hope of gambling fortunes began with "high stakes" bingo. Then came slot machines. Flashing neon lights and clanging of coins in winners' tills attracted gamblers from Texas, New Mexico and across the border.

Soon, the 24-hour operation attracted 100,000 players monthly, earning the tribe about $60 million annually and providing high-paying jobs to people inside and outside the tribe.

"I went from ... dirt poor to being at the height," said Lopez, now 20.

In 2002, a federal court agreed with then-Attorney General John Cornyn that the casino violated Texas' limited gambling laws and shut it down.

Tribal officials, desperate to reopen their one source of wealth, paid Abramoff and Scanlon to help reopen it.

Tribal Gov. Arturo Senclair, who took office after the tribe's dealings with Abramoff, said the offer seemed simple. The tribe was told they would need to pay $4.2 million — a fee negotiated down from about $5 million — to Scanlon, who would head the effort to reopen the casino, Senclair said.

Abramoff told tribal leaders he not could serve as the lobbyist of record, otherwise he would have to register as such in Washington and that might hurt the tribe's effort, Senclair said.

The Tiguas were also instructed to donate money to a number of Republican candidates or causes.

Since 2000, the tribe has made $175,000 in political contributions, according to a study by PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks political fund-raising and spending. All but $1,000 of that money was donated in 2002, the same year Yslet del Sur Pueblo of Texas began dealing with Abramoff.

The vast majority of the tribe's donations, all but $11,000 in fact, were made to Republican campaigns or groups, including $30,000 contributions to the Republican National State Elections Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Senclair said the tribe didn't know Abramoff and Scanlon apparently were also behind the effort to close their West Texas casino.

Senclair has provided the investigating Senate committee with copies of dozens of e-mails that he said showed a plan by Abramoff, Scanlon and others to close the Tiguas' casino, and then solicit money from the tribe in an effort to reopen it.

In hundreds of e-mails and other documents released by the committee in June, Abramoff and several associates discuss just how much money they will get from their dealings with the casino-operating tribes and being "creative" with billing hours.

In some messages, Abramoff refers to tribe officials as monkeys, morons, and troglodytes, a scientific name for prehistoric cave dwellers.

Just days before the casino closed on Feb. 11, 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon traded jubilant e-mails eluding to their future dealings with the tribe.

"Fire up the jet baby, we're going to El Paso!!" Abramoff wrote to Scanlon in a February 6, 2002 note, with the subject line, "i'm on the phone with Tigua!"

Scanlon replied six minutes later saying, "I want all their MONEY!!!"

The Tiguas would still be in business had Abramoff and Scanlon not pressured Texas authorities to close Speaking Rock, Senclair said.

Abramoff's associates, working on behalf of tribes in neighboring states who wanted to curb competition, urged social conservatives, including former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and fundamentalist ministers, to complain about the Texas casino, Senclair said.

Then, Abramoff and Scanlon sold their services to the Tiguas to get the casino reopened. Abramoff told the tribe he could get support from powerful Republicans willing to draft and attach a casino amendment to unrelated bill so the Tiguas could reopen, Senclair said.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum called the allegations levied by the tribe baseless.

He said the fees Abramoff earned were justified when compared with the economic benefits the tribes enjoyed as a result of his efforts.

"The Tigua were operating a casino in Texas without the proper legal authority and therefore the casino was shut down by then-Gov. George W. Bush and his Attorney General (now U.S. Sen.) John Cornyn," Blum wrote in an e-mail statement to The Associated Press in late July.

"Mr. Abramoff did not shut down this illegal casino. Rather, Mr. Abramoff's work on behalf of his client, the Louisiana Coushattas, was to prevent a similar illegal casino from being operated by another Coushatta tribe in Texas, not the Tiguas."

Blum said Abramoff tried to help the Tiguas after his work with the Louisiana tribe "spilled over to also affect the Tiguas, which was not the goal of Mr. Abramoff or his clients."

The Tiguas, which have about 1,300 registered members, won federal recognition as a tribe in 1987. The next year, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows tribes to open casinos on their reservations if their state permits gambling.

Texas voters approved several forms of gambling in 1991, including a state lottery, and horse and dog racing, but not casinos. After fighting unsuccessfully with the state to gain a gaming contract under the federal law, the Tiguas opened a casino in 1993.

Five years later, when Bush campaigned for re-election as Texas governor, he spoke out against gambling and often cited the Tiguas' casino as operating illegally.

"If the gaming we had was as illegal (as Texas claims), why did they let us operate for eight and half years?" Senclair said.

After Bush was re-elected, he directed Cornyn to take legal action against the tribe, even winning a $100,000 appropriation from the state legislature to pay for the effort. Cornyn, now a Republican senator, sued in federal court in 1999 and succeeded in shutting down the casino in 2002.

At the tribe's economic peak, it opened a cultural center, bought a 300-acre former pecan farm and built a neighborhood with more than 100 houses. The neighborhood included a state-of-the art community complex complete with workout facilities, a basketball court and pool. The tribe also provided college scholarships to its young members, retirement plans for its aging members, and forfeited federal assistance so more needy tribes could use the money.

Today, the cultural center is shuttered. The community center, which also houses a library and study center for reservation students, has scaled back hours to help cut operating costs by millions of dollars.

More than 900 jobs have been lost at the casino, which is now quiet except for the occasional winner's bell from entertainment machines that replaced about 1,500 slot machines. The new games, Senclair said, award points later traded for merchandise.

"It's like a pizza parlor," Senclair said derisively.

The tribe's businesses, including the casino, a once-busy restaurant and half-a-dozen convenience stores, barely break even.

"We're lean as it is, but we're going to have to get down to the bone," Senclair said. Anything that isn't self-sufficient could be sold, he said.

Senclair holds out hope the federal government will hold Abramoff and Scanlon responsible.

The tribe got back about half of the money it paid Abramoff and Scanlon in a settlement last year. That money, along with other savings, will help the Tiguas survive for at least another two years.

Lopez has decided that college is now his only hope to keep himself out of the poverty. He shares a small three-bedroom home on the reservation with his girlfriend and their daughter, his sister, and a niece. He enrolled at El Paso Community College — he is the first in his family to go to college and hopes to become a dentist — and will soon consider leaving the only home he's ever known.

"The way things are going right now," Lopez said. "I honestly think the best thing for me to do is leave."

Abramoff: More Trouble Ahead? - Newsweek Periscope -


Aug. 22, 2005 issue - The justice department played hardball last week with former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, in part because of concerns he might flee to Israel. Hours before Abramoff was indicted on fraud charges in Miami last Thursday, FBI agents tried to arrest him at his Maryland home. But he'd already left for Los Angeles. Agents tracked him down on his cell phone and ordered him to surrender to the local FBI office. When Abramoff did, later that day, he was handcuffed, thrown into jail, then released last Friday on a $2.2 million bond.

Abramoff's treatment contrasted with that given his co-defendant, Adam Kidan, who was allowed to show up in court on his own. A senior Justice official says one reason was that some of Abramoff's friends and former colleagues have moved to Israel. "There was concern he could relocate to another country," says the official, who asked not to be identified because the matter involves a pending case. Neal Sonnett, Abramoff's lawyer, called the Feds' tactics "mean-spirited," and says his client is fully ready to show up in court to refute the charges, which involve an allegedly phony $23 million wire transfer to buy a fleet of casino boats.

Another possible reason for the Feds' stance: to pressure Abramoff to cooperate in a broader, D.C.-based probe that could touch members of Congress and Bush administration officials. The probe centers on tens of millions in allegedly inflated lobbying fees Abramoff collected from Indian gaming tribes. But that's not all that's under scrutiny. A lawyer for another client, Tyco International, tells NEWSWEEK that it's turned over to Justice evidence alleging Abramoff defrauded it with a lobbying campaign against legislation to bar federal contracts to U.S. companies, like Tyco, headquartered in overseas tax havens. Tyco, based in Bermuda, paid $1.7 million to Abramoff's firm in 2003 and 2004—plus $1.5 million for a "grass roots" campaign to gin up opposition to the effort among Tyco's domestic suppliers. The Tyco official who hired Abramoff is the firm's general counsel, Tim Flanigan, a former White House lawyer nominated by President Bush for deputy attorney general. Tyco lawyer George Terwilliger says the firm "was a victim of a rip-off." Abramoff, he says, recommended the $1.5 million be paid to Grassroots Interactive, a group that allegedly did little work and later diverted funds for other purposes. Grassroots is "controlled" by Abramoff, says Nathan Lewin, a lawyer for Tyco's registered agent. Abramoff's former law firm has agreed "in principle" to repay the $1.5 million, says a source close to Tyco who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Abramoff, who raised more than $100,000 for Bush's re-election, allegedly told Flanigan he'd lobby White House aide Karl Rove on behalf of Tyco, says the source close to the company. Rove, whose secretary formerly worked for Abramoff, has "never spoken to [Abramoff] about any of his clients," says a White House spokeswoman. An Abramoff spokesman and his former law firm declined to comment.

—Michael Isikoff

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


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