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24 November 2005

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Slot-machine player accepts her jackpot check at the Soaring Eagle Casino owned by the Saginaw Chippewa Nation of Michigan. Native-American nations certified by the U.S. government are, in many legal ways, sovereign entitites, and are exempt from many state and national laws -- such as laws against operating gambling casinos.

"I think this has the potential
to be the biggest scandal in Congress
in over a century."

-- Thomas E. Mann
Brookings Institution
(Washington DC think tank)

The Morning Sun
Mt. Pleasant and Alma, Michigan (USA)
Thursday 24 November 2005

Four years of twists

Tribe's investment ties it
to major political scandal

Sun Staff Writer

It's been nearly four years since the administration of Maynard Kahgegab took over the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and hired a well-connected Washington lobbyist.

The sordid details of just how well connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff was, continue to bubble to the surface in a widening Congressional scandal. The brazenness of how Abramoff and his partners collected millions for themselves and spread around their influence would be unbelievable if it were political pulp fiction.

But it's not, and before it's over, the scandal could drag down several members of Congress, all Republicans.

Tribal insiders say the Saginaw Chippewas hired Abramoff and his lobbying/law firm of Greenberg Traurig because they were impressed with the results Abramoff claimed in bringing back millions of federal dollars to other Tribes.

The Saginaw Chippewas signed an initial contract, beginning in December 2001, that called for Abramoff to be paid $150,000 a month. That contract was renewed by the Tribal Council in December 2002 for $180,000 a month.

Defenders of the Kahgegab administration say it paid off. The resume of Central Michigan University political science faculty member Christopher Petras, who ran the Tribe's legislative affairs office at the time, claims credit for more than $17 million worth of federal appropriations returned to mid-Michigan.

Opponents, such as Tribal Subchief Bernie Sprague, say the Tribe didn't get much for their efforts.

The public-affairs firm

As he had with other Tribes, Abramoff encouraged the Saginaw Chippewas to hire a public-affairs firm called Capital Campaign Strategies to handle a public-relations campaign. That's where the real money was spent: about $10 million over two years.

A former congressional staffer named Michael P. Scanlon ran Capital Campaign Strategies. He had worked for Rep. Tom Delay, who later became House majority leader. Scanlon pleaded guilty this week to a federal bribery charge involving a member of Congress.

Delay stepped down as leader after being indicted in a Texas campaign finance scandal.

No one on the outside knew at the time that Scanlon and Abramoff were splitting the big fees. All Tribal leaders were told at the time was that if a little Indian Tribe in the middle of Michigan was going to have any influence, protect its sovereignty and bring back some federal pork-barrel dollars, it would cost them a bundle. Political gifts were part of that cost.

In 2002, the Tribe handed out about $478,000 to politicians. In 2003, the price went to $510,000. That included an $18,000 gift to Delay's Americans for the Republican Majority Political Action Committee, or ARMPAC, as well as a gift to Rep. Dennis Hastert, now the Speaker of the House.

The Saginaw Chippewas also sent $30,000 to an outfit called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. That group was founded by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and now-Interior Secretary Gail Norton.

That group gets most of its support from chemical and mining interests, and is seen by environmental groups as a front for developers. Abramoff's clients sent a total of $225,000 to the group.

Stopping a competitor

E-mails from Abramoff and Scanlon, leaked to the Washington Post, indicated that Abramoff enlisted the help of Italia Federici, the leader of the group, to use her influence to get a deputy secretary of the Interior, J. Steven Griles, to stop a casino proposed by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians for a site near Grand Rapids.

Abramoff later tried to hire Griles, but didn't succeed. Griles now runs an independent consulting firm.

The Grand Rapids-area casino also might have been a target of an extensive database of casino opponents, particularly in southwestern Michigan, put together by Scanlon's Capital Campaign Strategies. Scanlon charged the Tribe $4 million for the database, which Sprague maintains Tribal leaders never saw.

"Using a system of qualifying registered voters and phone surveys, we were able to identify voters who are opposed to the expansion of gaming in the southwest portion of the state," a July 31, 2002, memo from Scanlon to the Tribal Council states. "Not only that, we know how often they vote, how they vote, where they live and how to get in contact with them.

"Now, just as with your identified supporters in central Michigan, you have an army of grassroots voters who, at the drop of a hat, will mobilize to stop a new casino in their back yards."

It didn't happen in Michigan, but that's exactly what happened in Texas, with a little help from Abramoff's old friend, Ralph Reed. Abramoff had been the chairman of the national College Republicans during the 1980s; Reed, who later became chairman of the Christian Coalition, and Norquist were his deputies.

Abramoff funneled $250,000 to Reed, who helped organize fundamentalist Christian gambling opponents to shut down a casino run by a Tribe that was competing with an Abramoff client. Reed, who now is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, maintains he had no idea the cash came from gambling interests.

Abramoff and Scanlon later were hired by the Texas Tiguas, the Tribe whose casino was shut down. Scanlon orchestrated the introduction of a bill in the House to reopen the casino, but the bill went nowhere.

Ohio congressman

The bill was introduced by Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio. Ney doesn't get much notice outside his south-central Ohio district or outside the Beltway, but on Capitol Hill, he matters. He's the chairman of the House Administration Committee and a protege of DeLay.

Ney's committee doles out precious perks, such as office space, staff and parking places, and supervises campaign finance. In 2000, Ney had placed a statement in the Congressional Record supporting Abramoff's purchase of a Florida-based gambling boat line, SunCruz Casinos.

Abramoff has since been indicted for bank fraud in connection with the SunCruz purchase from Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis. Bouilis later was found murdered in Fort Lauderdale; Abramoff hasn't been implicated.

There were other connections between Ney and Abramoff. Ney OK'd the hiring of an Israeli communications firm to install antennas in the House. Abramoff was the lobbyist for that firm, Foxcom Communications. Besides paying nearly $300,000 in lobbying fees, Foxcom also gave more than $50,000 to a charity controlled by Abramoff called the Capital Athletic Fund.

The Saginaw Chippewas and other Abramoff clients also were big supporters of that charity, giving more than $2 million in total to the group. That non-profit group later paid more than $150,000 to fly Ney, Reed, Abramoff and David Safavian, the chief of staff of the [U.S. federal] General Services Administration, to Scotland for a golfing trip.

Safavian now is under indictment for lying to investigators, resigning from his White House post two days before the indictment was handed down. Reports also indicate Scanlon and Abramoff funneled campaign contributions to Ney, along with dinners at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in Washington, and fund-raisers in Abramoff's skyboxes at Washington-area sports venues.

Ney has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury looking into the case. He maintains he did nothing wrong and was misled by Abramoff. Scanlon, in federal court on Monday, admitted he was part of a broad conspiracy to provide "things of value, including money, meals, trips and entertainment to federal public officials in return for agreements to perform official acts."

Delay got his own trip to the Royal St. George golf course in Scotland, and also used Abramoff's skyboxes to raise campaign cash. Scanlon is expected to testify in the widening investigation.

The Tribe has continued to hand out cash. It spent $510,000 on political gifts in 2003 and $269,000 in 2004. That doesn't count the $9 million spent directly on helping to pay for 2004's successful Proposal 1, designed to make it tougher for competitors to enter the gambling market.

A memo from the Tribe's current lobbyist leaked to Tribal dissidents indicates a plan to spend more than $300,000 in 2006. Among the possible recipients of Saginaw Chippewa money are Reps. Mike Rogers, Dale Kildee, Sander Levin and Carolyn Cheeks Killpatrick of Michigan. Ney and DeLay are not on the list.

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