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

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Seattle Times: Local News: Tribes' new clout threatened by Abramoff fallout

By Alicia Mundy
Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Indian tribes are bracing for their first test of political power following the scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who admitted defrauding tribes and trying to corrupt public officials.

At stake, the tribes say, is whether they can maintain their newfound clout in Congress.

Fallout from the Abramoff controversy has prompted a House bill that would bar tribes from making campaign donations directly from casino revenues, by far the largest source of money for many tribes.

The bill would make tribes follow the same political-donor rules as corporations, which are banned from giving their revenues directly to campaigns.

"With a group that has so much business before Congress that they even have their own congressional committee, they need to have the same rules as we do," said Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, which has clashed with tribes over tax policy on gasoline and cigarettes sold on tribal lands.

"They shouldn't have undue influence."

Tribal leaders say the proposal threatens whatever political influence they've gained.

"Indians have only been able to become players in the political process in recent years, and they rely on income from tribal casinos," said W. Ron Allen, president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association and a member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, which has its reservation near Sequim.

The bill, Allen said, is supported by interest groups that want to limit tribal influence. "There is a public-relations campaign now to make this an issue and shut us down."

Currently, tribes are free to donate casino revenues, as long as they stay within the federal contribution limit of $4,200 per campaign to an individual candidate.

About 99 percent of tribal political contributions have come from tribes with casino operations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Cantwell a recipient

The move to regulate Indian contributions more closely comes during a crucial re-election campaign for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., whose narrow victory in 2000 was aided by donations from casino-operating tribes and their well-funded voter-mobilization efforts.

Cantwell beat incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who supported proposals that tribes claimed would undercut their sovereignty. Cantwell's Republican challenger this year is former Safeco CEO Mike McGavick.

The Puyallup and Tulalip tribes alone have donated $65,000 toward her re-election, federal campaign records show.

Since 2000, the Puyallups, Tulalips and Muckleshoots have contributed nearly $700,000 total to federal campaigns. Donations from all state tribes since 2000 top $1.2 million.

The Abramoff scandal has become a vehicle for several lobbies that want to limit tribes' growing political influence. In addition to the National Association of Convenience Stores, those lobbies include gas-station owners and some components of the oil industry.

The controversy also has energized anti-gambling activists.

In 2004, the National Association of Convenience Stores retained Gorton and his employer, Seattle-based law and lobbying firm Preston Gates, to lobby for a bill that would restrict tobacco sales by Web sites, many of which were based on tribal reservations. The bill stalled in the House.

Republican activist Cleta Mitchell said the new bill by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., to regulate tribal contributions further would close a longtime "loophole" in federal election law.

"You can't take corporate money and launder it through an account, but tribes do this all the time," said Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has worked on tax-equality issues.

Rogers' bill would force tribes to form political-action committees, or PACs, in order to give money to candidates. But PACs cannot take money directly from businesses either, including from casinos.

"If we have to form PACs, Indians across America and in our state will be disenfranchised," Allen said.

The bill also could make tribes adhere to rules that restrict the total amount of money certain donors can give to candidates and campaigns during a two-year election cycle, a spokeswoman from Rogers' office said. That limit is $101,400, but tribes are excluded from it.

Changing that exclusion could affect some Washington state tribes. In the 2004 election cycle, the Puyallups and Tulalips donated $109,000 and $110,000 respectively, federal campaign records show.

Nationally, tribal contributions to the 2004 federal elections, including the presidential race, totaled about $8.6 million. By comparison, PACs operated by Democratic and Republican party leaders contributed $32 million, while lawyers and law firms gave $182 million.

McCain weighs in

At a hearing last week, Allen told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that federal election law gives tribes a special status because they are considered sovereign nations.

But he agreed that tribes should be more transparent about their political contributions.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the committee and an aggressive advocate of election reform, has pounced on the Abramoff scandal as an example of problems in campaign financing.

Since the start of 2005, he has held nine hearings on Abramoff's lobbying and campaign-finance-related issues involving tribes.

Abramoff and a public-relations partner collected $82 million in payments from casino-rich Indian tribes, primarily in the South, which hired the lobbyist to protect their gambling interests. Abramoff's clients also donated millions to congressional campaigns.

No Northwest tribe has been connected to the Abramoff scandal. But Allen said he met Abramoff once, at the lobbyist's D.C. restaurant, Signatures.

"He was friendly," Allen said, adding that he understood how tribes could find Abramoff's links to power "enticing, intoxicating and seductive ... because he would get them access to the highest levels of national leaders."

Playing a name game?

During last week's hearing, McCain complained that some tribes have many names, which makes it difficult for the public to track their contributions.

One of Abramoff's clients, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs, Calif., used 78 variations of its name for campaign donations, according to Political Money Line, a database of political contributions.

But Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, said any problems involving tribal donations are neither large nor egregious.

He also said tribes need the exceptions in election law because they've been largely disenfranchised until recently.

Cantwell, who also serves on the Indian Affairs Committee, was noncommittal about possible changes to Indian political contribution rules.

In a written statement, her spokeswoman said Cantwell would work with McCain and her Democratic colleagues on campaign-finance changes.

McCain didn't discuss his views on Rogers' House bill in last week's hearing. But representatives of the National Congress of American Indians, a tribal advocacy group, say they believe he does not support it.

Still, the tribal "loophole" issue isn't dying down soon.

Said McCain: "I feel it is appropriate to examine how and why tribes, which truly are unique entities, are treated the way they are ... and whether the law should be changed."

Researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.


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