A Texas Indian tribe desperate to reopen its shuttered gambling casino paid two Washington insiders $4.2 million to try to persuade Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to slip crucial language into a bill, according to documents released at a congressional hearing yesterday.
The language did not end up in the 2002 Election Reform Act, but the tab for doing business in Washington came due anyway for the Tigua tribe of El Paso. The millions went to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations executive Michael Scanlon, who are embroiled in investigations by Congress and a federal grand jury over the $82 million in lobbying and public relations fees they collected from six tribes that operate gambling casinos.
The documents also show that the Tiguas paid $25,000 into Ney's political action committee, gave $300,000 to the two political parties and signed on to a plan to enlist the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee to approach Dodd on their behalf.
Yesterday, Tigua representatives told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that it is unclear what Abramoff and Scanlon did in return for the multimillion-dollar payment.
Dodd issued a statement saying he never agreed to help the Tiguas. Ney, who has been close to Abramoff but now says he was duped by him, said he agreed to help the Tiguas only because Abramoff told him it was something Dodd wanted. The two men were chairmen of a House-Senate conference committee finalizing the election reform bill.
Scanlon, 34, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), was subpoenaed to appear before the committee. Like Abramoff, who appeared at a hearing in September, he declined to answer questions on the grounds that they could incriminate him.
Yesterday's hearing was the first time that details emerged of how Abramoff and Scanlon planned to carry out their promise to help a tribal client win favors on Capitol Hill. The documents and testimony provided an unusually stark look at the way Indian gambling riches have become part of Washington lobbying and fundraising.
The Washington Post previously reported that Abramoff and Scanlon quietly worked with conservative religious activist Ralph Reed to help persuade the state of Texas to shut down the Tigua casino in 2002, then persuaded the tribe to pay the $4.2 million to try to get Congress to reopen it.
As they had in September, committee members struggled to express their disdain for the way the pair treated the tribes, with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) branding their efforts "incredibly, deeply cynical." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is leading the investigation, vowed to pursue it wherever it leads -- a path that increasingly is heading into the halls of Congress.
Panel Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said he was "horrified" to learn how far Abramoff was allegedly willing to go in pursuit of tribal dollars. Documents released yesterday show that when the Tiguas were out of money in 2003, Abramoff came up with a plan to provide term life insurance to tribal elders, who would make their beneficiary a Jewish school Abramoff founded in Wheaton. The school would pay Abramoff's lobbying fees at the firm of Greenberg Traurig, from which he was ousted earlier this year.
Campbell expressed dismay that Abramoff allegedly schemed to make money "by putting prices on the lives of tribal elders." The Tiguas rejected the plan.
The tribe also was asked to pay $50,000 for Ney and several others to accompany Abramoff on a golfing trip to St. Andrews, Scotland. According to testimony yesterday, however, two other tribes ultimately paid $50,000 each for that trip. Among those who accompanied Abramoff and Ney was Reed.
E-mails between Abramoff, Scanlon and Tigua representatives released yesterday show meetings with and telephone calls to Ney, who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, as well as donations to him from the Tiguas at about the time the Tigua casino request was pending.
An e-mail from Abramoff to Scanlon dated March 20, 2002, said, "Just met with Ney!!! We're . . . gold!!!! He's going to do Tigua." Six days later, in an e-mail to Tigua tribal consultant Marc Schwartz, Abramoff directed him to send checks totaling $32,000 to two Ney political action committees and to his campaign committee.
Ney met with tribal representatives in August and praised Abramoff's work, indicating he would support placing the Tigua language in the election bill, according to testimony from Schwartz.
Ney said in a statement that he was "approached by Mr. Abramoff, who explicitly told me that this provision was supported by Senator Chris Dodd." He added: "I then personally asked Senator Dodd about this provision and he expressed no knowledge of it."
Ney also said, "Jack Abramoff repeatedly lied to advance his own financial interests. I too was misled."
The e-mails and progress reports that Scanlon and Abramoff prepared for the Tiguas show that as Abramoff sought to line up Ney, Scanlon attempted to secure Dodd's support.
In a document provided to the Tiguas summarizing his work, Scanlon wrote that "we began to target Senator Dodd using a system of repeated contact from influential members of his political family. At the cornerstone of the project was the vice chairperson of the DNC and a member of his finance committee, Lottie Shackelford."
An official at Capitol Campaign Strategies, one of Scanlon's companies, said yesterday that Shackelford and two associates, George Burger and Brian Lundy, were paid to enlist Dodd's support by calling his chief of staff and mounting a letter-writing campaign. Two other sources knowledgeable about the work said payments amounted to $50,000 from Scanlon, $10,000 of which went to Shackelford.
An attorney for Lundy and Burger declined to comment. Shackelford did not return calls seeking a response.
Dodd said in a statement that his office had received calls from Ney's staff and from Shackelford seeking the inclusion of language in the elections reform bill, but said the overtures were "summarily rejected." A spokesman, Marvin Fast, said Dodd does not remember Ney bringing up the Tigua issue.
Campbell, who is retiring from Congress and presided over his last hearing yesterday, told Scanlon that he and Abramoff were part of "the shameful legacy" of exploitation of Indian tribes that stretches back 400 years. "You're the problem, buddy, in what happened to American Indians," said Campbell, as he banged down his gavel to close the session.
Scanlon rose from the witness table and turned to face a man who pressed through the crowd to hand him a document. It was Texas lawyer Joe Kendall, serving him with a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Louisiana Coushatta tribe that also named Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig as defendants.
Abbe Lowell, Abramoff's attorney, said in a statement about that suit that his client "provided great results for the fees that were paid" by the Coushattas and looked forward to proving it in court.