A Tribe Takes Grim Satisfaction in Abramoff's Fall
Saturday, January 7, 2006
ELTON, La. -- The dizzying downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff means more than just another Washington political scandal in this rural outpost of tin-roofed homes and fraying trailers.
It is a measure of vengeance.
Led on by what they say were his false promises of political access, leaders of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which is based here, paid Abramoff and his partners about $32 million for lobbying and other services -- more than $38,000 for each of their 837 tribal members. By their accounting, they got very little in return.
It was thievery, tribal members said, that echoes the historic losses of Native Americans to European settlers.
"Abramoff and his partner are the contemporary faces of the exploitation of native peoples," said David Sickey, a member of the tribal council. "In the 17th and 18th century, native people were exploited for their land. In 2005, they're being exploited for their wealth."
The money the Coushatta Tribe and other tribes with casino interests paid to Abramoff helped him spread favors and gain access in the nation's capital -- the subject of speculation about a widening political dragnet. But even more rankling to many Coushattas is the knowledge that Abramoff had, in released e-mails, referred to some of his Native American clients as "monkeys," "troglodytes" and "morons."
"That hit a nerve," Sickey said, frowning and pausing. "That really hit a nerve."
It was in part the revelations of Coushatta Tribe members about the exorbitant sums Abramoff was commanding that drew attention to his multifaceted operations and led to his guilty plea to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion this week. But the origins of the scandal are in some ways much broader, the product of the competition for the government gambling permits that has led to the spread of Indian casinos and waterfront operations across many rural parts of the country.
Those casinos have made many tribes rich, and some, like the Coushatta Tribe, have used their money to try to buy clout to squelch any potential competitors. As their gambling revenue grew, the tribes began to make political contributions, targeting mostly Democratic lawmakers. But when Abramoff came calling, it was not hard for him to persuade the tribes to start spreading the wealth to Republicans.
In some instances, the Coushattas got what they paid for: Abramoff was able to help quash a rival tribe's proposed casino, protecting the Coushatta Casino Resort.
The casino, about 20 miles north of Lake Charles and Interstate 10, is a vast complex of hotel rooms around a cavernous hall of slot machines and game tables.
Compared with the clusters of shuttered storefronts or half-demolished barns that line many roadsides here, it is a lavish spectacle, with a giant flashing sign by the road.