By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Since it opened 11 years ago, it has drawn gamblers, mostly Texans, and markedly changed the lives of the Coushattas.
Revenue from the operation is estimated to be about $300 million a year, and each tribal member is given a quarterly sum from the profits. Tribe finances are not disclosed publicly, but estimates of those checks per member have ranged from $30,000 to $40,000 annually. Members also receive free medical care and education, as well as financial aid to buy a home. Many have used the money for better cars and better homes. The per capita prosperity has also kicked off a baby boom, tribal leaders said, and today 342 of the tribal members are under the age of 18.
"We all stuck together this long, and now everything is a whole lot better than we ever had," said Curtis Sylestine, 51, a tribe member who works on the reservation's maintenance operations. He chuckled ruefully when asked about the Abramoff money.
"It's like the old days -- they're still robbing us blind," he said.
In conversation, many Coushattas compare the casino to "the golden goose" and say they were naturally defensive about other groups, Indian or non-Indian, seeking to open casinos that might cut into their market.
Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon promised to ward off the competition by blocking their government approvals, using their political access to prevent the Interior Department from approving a casino for a rival Indian group, the Jena Band of Choctaws, and trying to stifle the approval of other state-controlled licenses.
Abramoff did provide some lobbying. To ward off the Jena Band, for example, Abramoff called on support from senior senators and congressmen, the deputy secretary of the interior, and evangelical leaders James Dobson and Ralph Reed.
But there are a number of other instances where, tribe members say, the services that were provided were unclear and some of the money simply went to the coffers of Abramoff's allies. The guilty plea this week will help them try to recover their money from Abramoff, Scanlon and the law firm Greenberg Traurig, with which Abramoff was working, lawyer Jimmy Faircloth said.
Because Abramoff has admitted to a conspiracy, "the only issue now is the amount of the damages," Faircloth said.
Coushatta and other Native American leaders say they and their casino operations probably have been hurt politically as well, because of Abramoff's close ties to the tribes. There is already considerable political and moral unease over the spread of gambling. Many of the highway billboards promising the excitement of gambling also ask, in smaller type, "Gaming Problem?" and recommend a toll-free number for counseling. A billboard facing Texas-bound travelers leaving the Coushatta resort is simpler: "TIRED OF LOSING?" it asks. "TRY JESUS CHRIST."
Even before the money in the scandal came to fund Abramoff's work in Washington, it belonged to people such as Marie Buckler and Walter Elliott, a retired couple from the Houston area, who arrived at the Coushatta resort this week on a bus with other retirees. Neither seemed terribly troubled about losing the money.
"Is that where our money went?" Buckler asked with a chuckle.
"It's just about getting away from the house," Elliott said.
Native American groups frame gambling as an issue of personal freedom.
"We're not putting a gun to anyone's head and say give money to the Indian people," Sickey said. "It's a personal decision."
For now, the Coushattas are simply hoping to win their money back, maintain their casino profits in the face of competition, and hold on to their customs.
Many speak their native language fluently, and the tribe is particularly noted for the baskets some weave from pine needles.
Most significantly, they are trying to prove to themselves that they can manage the riches that come with the casino. The old tribal council, which entered into the agreements with Abramoff and Scanlon, has been swept from power. Many voters said they were disappointed with the former council members but doubted that they had enriched themselves.
"He cheated us. He deceived us. And he shouldn't get away with it just because he's big in Washington politics," Sylestine said.
"We want justice," Kirk Langley, a tribe member who works at a millwork shop, said during a cigarette break. "And we want our money back."