Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying
Sunday, March 13, 2005
When a ragtag band of Louisiana Indians won their governor's support for a casino three years ago, they never could have fathomed the powerful cast of characters who would collaborate to flatten them.
Jack Abramoff, one of Washington's most prominent Republican lobbyists, tapped into the gambling riches of a rival tribe to orchestrate a far-reaching campaign against the Jena Band of Choctaws -- calling on senior U.S. senators and congressmen, the deputy secretary of the interior and evangelical leaders James Dobson and Ralph Reed.
The story of what Abramoff did for the Louisiana Coushatta tribe provides the most complete picture yet of the role of the lobbyist at the center of a widening federal corruption investigation in Washington. It was reconstructed through interviews with tribal leaders, government officials and former business associates, as well as through Interior Department and other documents and e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.
Abramoff arranged for Dobson and Reed to pressure federal officials to reject the Jenas' bid on anti-gambling grounds. He and his partners drafted anti-Jena letters that were then signed by congressional leaders, some of whom have received thousands of dollars in donations from tribes represented by Abramoff. One ally inserted language opposing the casino into a bill late in the legislative process.
And in an attempt to influence the Interior Department -- which has the final say on a tribe's gambling ambitions -- Abramoff directed his tribal clients to give at least $225,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a conservative group that was founded by Gale A. Norton before President Bush chose her to be his interior secretary. Federal officials are investigating the nature of the relationship between the group's president, Italia Federici, and Norton's then-deputy, J. Steven Griles.
The Jenas lost their first round. They came back to win approval for a second casino plan. 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.
A Justice Department task force is examining the Jena episode as part of its investigation into the $82 million Abramoff and Scanlon were paid by tribes. Among the areas under scrutiny, according to sources with knowledge of the probe, are Abramoff's contacts with the Interior Department and with members of Congress; the payments to the Republican environmental group; the Griles-Federici relationship; and Griles's possible attempt to intervene in the casino decision.
A spokeswoman for Griles said he was unavailable for questions, but said Griles "didn't participate in any decision-making process regarding the Jena Band and gaming." Federici declined to discuss the nature of her relationship with Griles or the tribe's contributions to her group, but said all of her group's activities involve environmental issues. A spokesman for Norton said that the department's decisions were properly made, but that she could not respond to questions because the matter is under investigation.
A spokesman for Abramoff, Abbe Lowell, called it "highly ironic" that Abramoff is being questioned for using "every legal and proper method" to protect his client's interests. "The effort to stop the illegal placing of a Jena casino in a position to destroy the economy of Abramoff's tribal client, the Louisiana Coushattas, was extensive and successful," he said.
When the Jena casino plan was unveiled in January 2002, Abramoff had 45 days to act before the Interior Department completed the legal review called for by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.