A Jackpot From Indian Gaming Tribes

By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2004

A powerful Washington lobbyist and a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) persuaded four newly wealthy Indian gaming tribes to pay their firms more than $45 million over the past three years for lobbying and public affairs work, a sum that rivals spending to influence public policy by some of the nation's biggest corporate interests.

Touting his ties to conservatives in Congress and the White House, lobbyist Jack Abramoff persuaded the tribes to hire him and public relations executive Michael Scanlon to block powerful forces both at home and in Washington who have designs on their money, according to tribe members.

Under Abramoff's guidance, the four tribes -- Michigan's Saginaw Chippewas, the Agua Caliente of California, the Mississippi Choctaws and the Louisiana Coushattas -- have also become major political donors. They have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show.

The payday for the GOP is small though, compared with the $15.1 million the tribes have paid Abramoff and his law firm, Greenberg Traurig, which has rocketed to the ranks of top lobbyists on the fees it has charged gaming tribes, lobbying records show.

And those fees -- 10 or 20 times what the tribes paid their former lobbyists -- are about half of what Scanlon has taken in. Scanlon, 33, himself a former Greenberg lobbyist who was recommended by Abramoff, has been paid $31.1 million, according to documents and interviews with tribal members.

The fees are all the more remarkable because there are no major new issues for gaming tribes on the horizon, according to lobbyists and congressional staff. The tribes' payments for lobbying and public affairs work are comparable to what large corporations spend on lobbying in Washington: General Electric Co. paid more than two dozen lobbying firms $30.4 million over the same three-year period, according to federal records. The nation's top four pharmaceutical companies paid dozens of lobbying and law firms $34.8 million between mid-2002 and mid-2003, according to the records.

"Those fees would certainly stand out as greater in magnitude than what rank-and-file tribes pay," said Phil Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates Indian gaming. "I guess they have been persuaded there is some value or return for that, but what that is, I'm not aware," Hogen said.

Abramoff has also advised tribes to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to obscure groups whose connections to Indian concerns are unclear, according to documents and numerous tribe members. One of those organizations, located at a Scanlon property in Rehoboth Beach, Del., paid $1.5 million in lobbying fees to Greenberg Traurig over a recent two-year period.

Battles Within the Tribes

The spending by tribal leaders has spawned passionate battles within the tribes. Audrey Falcon, newly elected chief of the Saginaw Chippewas, told tribe members in a letter last week that "$14 million of your dollars was spent for lobbyists that yielded little or no results for our tribe."

Her predecessor, Maynard Kahgegab, defended the spending in an interview. Abramoff won federal funds for the tribe and Scanlon built a database "market protection program" to try to defeat the slot machines of other tribes and at racetracks, he said.

Chris Petras, who was ousted last month from his job as legislative director of the Saginaw Chippewas, said Greenberg Traurig "really established the tribe in Washington as a serious entity in terms of being a policy player." He said Abramoff got funding for several projects earmarked for the tribe, including a $1.2 million residential treatment facility and $3 million for a new school.

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