Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations executive Michael Scanlon formed a secret partnership that corruptly influenced Indian tribal elections in order to bilk tribes that operate gambling casinos out of more than $66 million in fees, lawmakers charged yesterday during an unusual Senate committee hearing.
Abramoff, appearing under subpoena before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, endured blistering attacks from senator after senator, turning aside all questions by invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Scanlon dodged U.S. marshals who attempted to serve him with a subpoena compelling him to appear, according to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who with the panel's chairman, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), has been leading the seven-month investigation into Abramoff's and Scanlon's activities.
Nighthorse Campbell said the documentary trail developed by the committee, including the e-mails released yesterday, tell a story of unbounded greed. He said he believes Abramoff privately showed bigotry and contempt for tribal officials who were awarding him and Scanlon multimillion-dollar contracts, referring to them as "idiots" and "troglodytes."
"Do you refer to all your clients as 'morons'?" he demanded of Abramoff. The witness, flanked by lawyer Abbe D. Lowell, looked abashed but did not answer, citing his right against self-incrimination.
Two tribal leaders, one from the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, Calif., the other from the Saginaw Chippewa tribe in Michigan, testified about their futile efforts to block their tribes from spending millions of dollars to hire Abramoff and Scanlon. Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich said he has since learned that Abramoff and Scanlon entered into "a secret cabal with certain tribal members" to whom they provided "assistance" that is still being investigated.
Bernie Sprague, sub-chief of the Saginaw Chippewas, said that, in the fall of 2001, Abramoff and Scanlon "smeared the reputations of other candidates running for Tribal Council" and got their hand-picked slate elected.
The Senate committee has assembled hundreds of thousands of pages of documents about Abramoff and Scanlon's work with six tribes in various parts of the country. Records show that Scanlon and Abramoff each collected $21 million of the $66 million in fees paid to Scanlon's companies. On top of that, the tribes paid $16 million in lobbying fees to Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's former lobbying firm, which typically charged them $150,000 to $175,000 a month.
"The documents show that Jack Abramoff systematically sought out impressionable tribal leaders and representatives, seduced them with promises of power and prestige, and helped them attain positions of power within their tribes," McCain said. "Once in power, their allies on the tribal council steered multimillion-dollar contracts to Mr. Abramoff's lobbying firm and Mr. Scanlon's PR company."
While "every kind of charlatan and every type of crook" has exploited American Indians since the sale of Manhattan island, McCain said, "what sets this tale apart, what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit."
The activities of Abramoff, once a powerful lobbyist with extensive ties to Republican leaders, and Scanlon, a former spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), are also being investigated by a federal grand jury in Washington.
In a telephone interview last night, Scanlon said he did not appear before the committee because his attorneys and committee lawyers had not worked out the terms of the subpoena for his testimony. He said the claims about his manipulation of tribal elections were overblown. "What was alleged is that tribal elections were rigged. What the committee produced were talking points [for tribal candidates]," he said.
Lawmakers yesterday cited the pair's e-mail traffic, which the panel subpoenaed from Greenberg Traurig, where Abramoff was head of government relations until March, when he quit under pressure.
When Scanlon complained on March 5, 2003, about an Agua Caliente tribal member, Abramoff counseled: "I think the key thing to remember with all these clients is that they are annoying, but that the annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly."
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) strained to find words to describe the e-mails and other evidence, calling the two men's activities "a cesspool of greed, a disgusting pattern, certainly, of moral corruption, possibly of criminal corruption. . . . a pathetic, disgusting example of greed run amok."
"I think all of us know this is the most extraordinary pattern of abuse to come before this committee in the 18 years I've served here," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who described the pair's conduct as "scuzzy" and "outrageous."
Lawmakers said the e-mails and other documents show that the two men spent tens of thousands of dollars on mailings and other materials for candidates in tribal elections. Individual tribes make their own rules governing outside influence on tribal elections. The National Indian Gaming Act bars the use of tribal funds to benefit individual candidates.
The e-mails show that just before the 2002 Agua Caliente tribal elections, Scanlon asked Abramoff: "How much do you want me to spend on the AC race -- I gotta get a team out there ASAP -- Then rotate a new team in after that -- So travel is gonna run about 20K and materials like 5-10K. Should we go for it?"
Abramoff replied: "Yes, go for it big time."
The panel subpoenaed Chris Petras, former legislative director of the Saginaw Chippewas, who was a liaison to Abramoff and Scanlon. Petras said that he could not recall any discussions about the pair becoming involved in tribal elections and that he was not convinced they had done anything wrong.
An e-mail from Abramoff to Scanlon in the fall of 2001 suggested otherwise. "I had dinner tonight with Chris Petras of Sag Chip. He was salivating at the $4-5 million program I described to him . . . He is going to come in after the primary with the guy who will be chief if they win (a big fan of ours already) and we are going to help him win. If he wins, they take over in January, and we have millions."
After the Saginaw Chippewa election, Scanlon congratulated his staff and Abramoff for the victory of seven of eight candidates running as "The Slate of Eight." "We had less than three weeks to take 8 guys who never met before and get them elected. It was a great plan, and great execution by a great team. . . . We now control 9 out of the 12 seats on the council . . . hopefully we will be doing some more work for the tribe in the near future."
E-mails in the winter of 2002 appear to show Abramoff attempting to drum up more business for Scanlon by stoking unwarranted fears about "racinos" legislation that could revive competition from the horse racing industry.
On Oct. 10, 2002, Scanlon sent Abramoff a news clipping about horse racing bills in the Michigan legislature, with the message: "Here we go! This could kill Saginaw!"
Abramoff responded: "Chris thinks this is not going anywhere. Can you call him and scare him?"
On Dec. 10, 2002, Abramoff appeared to do just that in an e-mail to Petras. "Chris, I am getting worried about this. Last night we opened Stacks [a Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant owned by Abramoff] and there were some WH guys there. . . . They told me that there is a hearing coming up on this immediately, and they have heard that this is going to happen!!! . . . where is Scanlon on this? . . . We need to get him firing missiles. How do we move it faster? Please get the council focused on this as soon as you can."
Abramoff sent a copy to Scanlon, who messaged back: "I love you."