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Abramoff hearing a disgrace for tribes? Not so fast

WASHINGTON - One contrast between national leaders and tribal leaders was
on prominent display Sept. 29, at the much-publicized hearing of the Senate
Indian Affairs Committee on lobbying practices in and around Indian
country. Unlike tribal leaders, national leaders enjoy protective settings
that keep their political enemies at arm's length anyway. Unlike tribal
leaders, they don't tend to have constituents as their worst political
enemies.

Present on the committee was Sen. John McCain. Only days before, the
Arizona Republican had been the subject of a scurrilous rant from a highly
placed Republican operatchik whose point seemed to be that lobbyists known
to McCain had wanted tribal contracts secured by lack Abramoff for
themselves instead. How it followed that McCain would therefore help to
spearhead a full-bore Senate investigation of lobbyist Abramoff and his
colleague, Michael Scanlon, was left to the inspired imagination. The
senator himself, survivor of harrowing tortures as a prisoner of war in
Vietnam, surely must have surmounted such outpourings with a chuckle, at
most a sneer.

But here he was on Sept. 29, collecting the pledges of several committee
members to stand fast with him against the published insult. It soon seemed
clear the gravitas of the entire Senate would gather itself to his defense.
McCain smiled and laughed a bit, appreciative enough, but from all
appearances not about to take it too seriously.

The tribal leaders who gave testimony found no similar support system. To
the contrary one of them, sub-chief Bernie Sprague of the Saginaw Chippewa,
found himself in a testy encounter afterward with a tribal member who
berated him for "doing this." The tribal member was the testy one; Sprague
looked sad and withdrawn. And Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua
Caliente, cut just as lonely a figure as he resisted the committee's
insistence that the tribe had been "victimized almost beyond
comprehension," in the words of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., the
committee chairman. Committee member Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., resorted more
than once to the concept and lexicon of "humiliation."

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But Milanovich and Sprague had done something that isn't easy anywhere.
They had spotted a bad deal, called it as they saw it, suffered adverse
political consequences, and stuck with their resistance, ultimately
prevailing in a lawful manner against long odds. They are as representative
of their tribes as the council members who gave away millions of dollars to
an alleged pair of fast-talking con men. If Sprague's confrontation after
the hearing and a relatively broad experience of Indian country are any
guide, they still contend against denial and hostility on the home front,
in the communities where they live.

Any stones to be thrown here probably shouldn't come from congressmen
secure in their seats of power, with federal law on lobbying arranged in
their favor.

Of course, there is no ignoring the alleged fact that in the case of both
tribes, other elected leaders never made a peep over invoices that mounted
into the millions of dollars, for services that were not exactly showering
the tribes with contract deliverables. The Saginaw Chippewa, at least, seem
not to have engaged attorneys in negotiating million-dollar contracts. At
Agua Caliente, a competent attorney advised against the Abramoff contract,
according to Milanovich - advice the tribal council rejected.

Four other tribes named in the investigation must also have managed to
approve their share of the $66 million that went to Abramoff and Scanlon
over three years. Their explanations presumably await future committee
hearings. The next one is scheduled for Nov. 17.