A $3 million grant from a federal program intended for impoverished Indian tribal schools went to one of the richest tribes in the country under pressure from Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who oversees the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribe that last year received the money for a new school, the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan, was at the time a client of Jack Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist whose practices are the subject of multiple federal investigations. Abramoff, his associates and his wealthy tribal clients have been an important source of Burns's campaign funds, providing 42 percent of the contributions to his "soft-money" political action committee from 2000 to 2002, according to federal election records.
Burns pressed for the appropriation over the objections of Interior officials, who said that the grant was not intended for such a purpose. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), ranking minority member on the appropriations subcommittee, supported Burns's effort to exempt the Saginaw Chippewas from requirements that would have prevented them from getting the money.
A spokesman for Burns, J.P. Donovan, said yesterday that Burns pushed the Interior Department to give the money to the tribe because other members of Congress, including the Michigan delegation, supported the move, not because of efforts by Abramoff's lobbyists. "I don't believe he was unduly influenced," Donovan said. "To my knowledge, Abramoff's lobbying was not bearing on it." Burns had met Abramoff only once or twice, Donovan said.
Donovan said Burns "has worked very hard to improve the way of life in tribal communities," and supported school funding for the Saginaw Chippewas as part of his effort to "help these tribes get a leg up and help the children get a good education."
The Saginaws, who operate a casino northwest of Detroit, are well-to-do, with each member of the tribe receiving $70,000 a year from gambling profits. The tribe was given authorization for $3 million to build a new school on the reservation under a program created to help impoverished tribes make repairs to dilapidated school buildings.
The Michigan tribe was one of about a dozen that hired Abramoff to represent their interests in Washington.
The FBI, the Justice Department's public integrity section and the Interior Department inspector general are investigating Abramoff's lobbying practices, focusing on tribal clients that paid him and a public relations associate $82 million between 2001 and 2003. Among the areas investigators are examining, former Abramoff associates and tribal representatives said, are whether legislative favors were granted in Congress in exchange for tribal campaign contributions, and whether Abramoff opened doors on Capitol Hill by wooing congressional aides with the promise of jobs, as well as tickets to sporting events, trips, meals and other gifts.
Abramoff's lobbying team had strong connections with Burns's staff. Among their ranks was an appropriations aide who shuttled back and forth between jobs on Burns's staff and Abramoff's shop. Another Burns appropriations staffer and Burns's chief of staff were treated to a trip to the 2001 Super Bowl in Florida on a corporate jet leased by Abramoff's team.
As chairman of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, Burns controls funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is in a key position for tribes seeking special projects. His political action and campaign committees have received $137,000 from Abramoff lobbyists and their tribal clients since 2000; Dorgan has received $45,000 from them.
Dorgan's office did not respond to questions about his role in getting the funds for the Saginaw school.
In January 2003, Burns and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) placed comments in the Congressional Record urging that the tribe receive federal demonstration funds for part of the cost of building a tribal school. Neither mentioned that the tribe was not part of the Indian School Equalization Program -- a necessary prerequisite. That program provides funds to improve substandard schools.
"There was a question as to whether they were eligible to participate," said John Trezise, chief of the Interior Department's budget office. "We took a look at the authorizing statute and determined they were not eligible in 2003."
Trezise and a former Interior official said Burns then wrote to the department pressing for the funds. Dorgan signed off on the letter, said Donovan, the Burns spokesman.