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Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying

The prospect that Dobson would become involved had an immediate impact at Interior. His regular radio show had a huge audience, and his Colorado-based Focus on the Family actively campaigned against gambling as a social evil.

One of Dobson's top aides, Tom Minnery, wrote to Norton saying Louisiana "already has an alarming number of gaming establishments" -- a letter he copied to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. The Interior Department's White House liaison, Doug Domenech, sounded the alarm.

The Players

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton ultimately ruled in favor of the Jenas Band of Choctaws' casino application.

J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy at Interior, allegedly mounted a late but unsuccessful challenge to the Jenas' plan.

Jack Abramoff, lobbying for a competing Indian tribe, mobilized anti-Jenas efforts outside and inside Washington.

David Vitter, then a congressman from Louisiana, urged Norton in February 2002 to turn down the Jenas' application.

Michael Scanlon and Abramoff were paid $32 million by the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, which operated a casino in the state.

Ralph Reed was paid up to $4 million by Abramoff and Scanlon to organize anti- gambling campaigns in Texas and Louisiana.

Opponents of the Jenas' bid invoked the name of evangelical leader James Dobson in order to pressure federal officials.

"Doug came to me and said, 'Dobson's going to shut down our phone system. He's going to go on the air and tell everyone who listens to Focus on the Family to call Interior to oppose the Jena compact,' " said a former senior Interior official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

Federici, of CREA, stoked the nervousness at Interior. "From what I have been told," she wrote Norton spokesman Eric Ruff in a Feb. 21 memo, Reed "has been bending the ear of Karl Rove and possibly even the President about land-in-trust and gaming issues. I am also hearing that Ralph has involved James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly with this. Supposedly Dobson is planning to run ads and they mention Gale by name."

Federici said she had also heard that conservatives in the House "have been asked to sign a letter to Gale and the President slamming DOI [Department of Interior]."

Federici declined to comment on why she had any involvement with the tribes or the gambling issue. Along with her memo to Ruff, she enclosed without explanation copies of e-mails on the issue that Reed had sent to Abramoff.

There is no evidence that Dobson's group knew of Abramoff's connection to Reed. But Dobson's involvement was discussed at a senior Interior staff meeting and "had its intended effect, which was to get everyone worried," the former senior official said. "Norton didn't want a spectacle involving the department, especially involving gambling."

Norton's predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, had endured a two-year probe by an independent counsel before being cleared of allegations involving an Indian tribe and campaign contributions.

Norton's aides contacted Dobson's group to calm things down, the former official said, and told it that whatever the decision, the Jenas would need to clear more hurdles before opening a casino.

Help on the Hill

In addition to the grass-roots pressure on Interior, Abramoff and his lobbying team sought allies on Capitol Hill.

David Vitter, a Republican congressman from Louisiana and longtime gambling foe, wrote a three-page letter in February 2002 to Norton, urging her to reject the Jena compact.

Reed was delighted. He forwarded to Abramoff the details of four telephone calls made by top Vitter supporters to the congressman's staff, lauding his efforts to block the Jenas. "He's feeling the love," Reed wrote in an e-mail to Abramoff.

Reed's Committee Against Gambling Expansion followed up by mailing thousands of postcards to voters praising Vitter. Vitter, who was mulling a run for governor, said he later got the group's permission to use its name in his own phone-banking effort. The gambling furor raised Vitter's political profile, and he went on to win the Senate seat vacated by Democrat John B. Breaux last year.

At the time of the Jena fight, Vitter said, he had no idea that Reed and Abramoff were behind the group or that it was funded with Coushatta casino money. When newspaper stories last summer reported the link, he said, he was "surprised and quite frankly disappointed." Vitter said he never dealt with Abramoff and had met him only once, in passing.

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