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A lobbying scandal - not a tribal scandal

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As both vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and a member of the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I have been absolutely appalled at the
scope and the depth of the villainy associated with the Abramoff lobbying
scandal.

Inasmuch as Washington recently has become consumed and distracted by the
utterly shameful actions of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, I believe
that it is essential to understand just how far removed from this scandal
Indian tribes are.

While a small handful of tribes represented by Abramoff were victimized by
his incredibly shady and cynical manipulation of their funds, the vast
majority of our nation's 562 tribes and Alaska Native villages had nothing
to do with him or his practices. Fewer than half of those tribes operate
casinos and only a tiny proportion of those generate the kind of money that
would attract the likes of Abramoff.

Most of the tribes that operate casinos are far from wealthy. The myth that
all or most gaming Indian tribes are rolling in dough is wildly incorrect.
The tribes in South Dakota and many around the country have large land
bases and extensive enrolled memberships. Their casinos are often located
in remote, rural areas far away from large numbers of affluent customers,
and set amidst dire levels of poverty and unemployment.

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The truth is that most of these casinos provide some badly needed jobs and
only a modest amount of revenue. The income that remains after payroll
expenses are largely immediately consumed by a huge backlog of financial
needs for education, housing, health and economic development within their
reservations.

While a few tribes were associated with Abramoff, the fees they paid were
far beyond what most tribes could possibly afford -- and, in the end, their
hired lobbyist abused both their money and their trust. Clearly, this
scandal was a lobbying scandal, not a tribal scandal.

We cannot allow Abramoff's abuse of the system to distract us from the
serious issues affecting Indian country. The reality in too much of Indian
country is the consequence of chronic poverty: Shocking levels of disease,
inadequate housing, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, low school graduation
rates, hunger and stressed families. These tribes aren't paying Washington
lobbyists millions of dollars, but instead are struggling every day to make
ends meet and to help restore the dignity of their members.

While I did not receive any money from Abramoff, I did receive legal
contributions from tribes he represented. I am proud of the support Indian
tribes and individual Native Americans have extended to me over the years.
I want to hear more from Indian country -- not less. We must help restore
the American public's faith in good, responsible government and preserve
participation by sovereign Indian tribes in our democracy.

Tim Johnson, Democrat, is the senior U.S. senator from South Dakota.