By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006
A wealthy Indian tribe once represented by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff said yesterday that it has decided to return a $3 million federal school-construction grant it received as a result of pressure exerted on Interior Department officials by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).
The Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan sent a letter to congressional appropriations committees saying it will return the earmarked money and asked that it be sent to other tribes.
A federal task force investigating congressional corruption is looking into actions by Burns and members of his staff in obtaining the grant, according to people involved in the probe.
Burns, who oversees the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, pressed for the funding over the objections of Interior officials, who said that the money was intended to improve dilapidated tribal schools, not build new ones for wealthy tribes.
The Washington Post reported last year that Burns pushed Interior to reverse its decision that the tribe did not qualify for the funds, and when that failed, he earmarked the money in a 2004 appropriations bill.
"After careful consideration, our tribal council has decided not to move forward with the construction of the school, because it is not financially prudent to pursue this project at this time," tribal officials wrote in a letter yesterday to Burns and other lawmakers. They asked that Congress use the money to offset some of the cuts in the BIA's budget.
Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said the Saginaw Chippewas' action "is definitely appreciated by the tribes." She added: "Hopefully, the money can get turned around to benefit other tribes in one way or another."
Burns has said he sought the grant because he is interested in improving conditions on Indian reservations. A spokesman for his office had no immediate comment on the tribe's decision.
Burns was a major beneficiary of campaign contributions from Abramoff's lobbying team and the tribes they represented, taking in $141,590 in contributions from 1999 to 2004. Under political pressure for his ties to Abramoff, Burns announced in December he would return the money.
Abramoff's lobbying team had strong ties to Burns's staff. One appropriations aide went back and forth between jobs on Burns's staff and Abramoff's team. 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 SunCruz, a Florida casino cruise line then owned by Abramoff and several partners.
The FBI, the Justice Department's public integrity section and the Interior Department inspector general are investigating Abramoff's dealings with members of Congress and their staffs. Much of their focus is on legislative favors traded for lavish trips, sporting events, meals, campaign contributions and the promise of jobs to congressional staffers.
Abramoff, his SunCruz partner Adam Kidan, along with Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, former aides to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) when he was House majority leader, have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with investigators.