WASHINGTON - Corruption reached all the way to the grave Nov. 17 as a
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing revealed that lobbyist Jack
Abramoff tried to get the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo to pay for
lobbying with life insurance policies on tribal elders.
The committee referred to the proposal as the Elderly Legacy Program. Upon
the death of the elders, the policies would pay out to the school he
founded, Eshkol Academy, and to the firm he worked for, according to
documents released by the committee. The pueblo council agreed to it at
first, said Lieutenant Governor Carlos Hisa. "It was approved, initially
... and then we just decided not to move forward on it." After talking it
over, council members decided it just wasn't right, he added.
Committee members tried to express themselves on this latest alleged
outrage in a lengthy train of them from Abramoff and his colleague in
communications, Michael Scanlon. But they generally fell short. Sen. Daniel
K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, said, "I don't believe we've had such a sad and
sickening set of circumstances" in his time on the committee. Sen. Kent
Conrad, D-N.D., left it at wondering whether they sleep at night.
"The word morbid fits pretty well I think," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Campbell, R-Colo., the committee chairman.
The Elderly Legacy Program was only one of the plans Abramoff and Scanlon
had for the Tigua, according to the committee. Their main agenda was to
enrich themselves by offering to assist the tribe in reopening the casino
they had themselves helped persuade the state legislature to shut down. For
this the tribe paid Scanlon $4.2 million. Abramoff, a registered lobbyist,
did not wish to be paid directly but insisted the tribe pay Scanlon,
according to the committee. As a lobbyist, Abramoff would have to report
the earnings. Scanlon, as a businessman, would not. Abramoff demanded the
tribe keep his role secret, according to e-mail transcripts released by the
Lieutenant Gov. Hisa and Marc Schwartz, a consultant to the tribe, filled
in the outline of the tribe's desperate relationship with the two men,
formed shortly after the state had shut down the tribe's casino in El Paso,
Texas. Abramoff approached the tribe with a promise to help get the casino
reopened by inserting language into unrelated legislation that would give
the tribe federal recognition. That in turn would revive the tribe's casino
under U.S. jurisdiction. He didn't promise results, but impressed tribal
leadership by mentioning his "special influence" with Reps. Tom Delay of
Texas and Bob Ney of Ohio, other "Republican leadership" in the House of
Representatives, the Republican National Committee, President George W.
Bush and presidential advisor Karl Rove. "There were others whose names
escape me at this time," Schwartz said.
Abramoff, a lobbyist well-known for his Republican connections, insisted
the tribe hire Scanlon as its communications specialist, and Scanlon
seconded his claims of "special influence," according to testimony before
Eventually the tribe agreed to pay Scanlon for a lobbying scheme called
"Operation Open Door."
During 2002, Schwartz said under questioning from Conrad, tribal members
met with Congressman Ney and were treated to a presentation on how language
that would reopen the tribe's casino could be inserted into pending
E-mails released by the committee indicate that while Abramoff and Scanlon
never guaranteed the tribe it would pass the Tigua-specific language into
law, they assured the tribe it was anything but a risky proposition because
of their "special influence." After the tribe made million-dollar payments,
however, Scanlon characterized the operation as "high-risk."
Throughout the middle months of 2002, Abramoff assured the tribe its
recognition language was well on the way to becoming law. It had been
inserted in the bill, after all, just as Ney had demonstrated. Then in
October, Hisa said, the tribe learned the language had been excluded from a
bill that passed. "It was a shock in the end ... Our tribal members were
disappointed, angry ... The tribal members are outraged, like I was." None
of the other benefits offered by Abramoff and Scanlon - a database, a
communications campaign, a telephone bank - had come through either.
In addition, the tribe made a variety of political contributions directed
by Scanlon, on the theory they would generate political favor for the
tribe. Among the organizations the tribe donated to, according to Sen. John
McCain, R-Ariz., who will chair the committee in next year's 109th
Congress, were "Friends of the Big Sky," "Rely on Your Beliefs Foundation,"
and an "Association of God-Fearing Citizens." McCain and Campbell didn't
conceal their skepticism at what such organizations would have to do with
the Tigua resuming casino operations, but Hisa and Schwartz said they
hadn't questioned the need for the donations. Schwartz said he didn't
suspect a swindle until The Washington Post broke the story on Abramoff's
and Scanlon's tribal contracts, early in 2004.
As in September, when the committee conducted its first public hearing on
Abramoff's and Scanlon's dealings with tribes, no committee member accused
either man of criminal wrongdoing. But they got closer, with Sen. Byron
Dorgan, a fellow Democrat of Conrad's from North Dakota, remarking, "I
would have no doubt there was some fraud."
Scanlon appeared before the committee on Nov. 17. Like Abramoff in
September, he offered no opening statement and declined to answer
questions, "pleading the Fifth" as the saying goes - his right against
self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
The committee's investigation will go on under McCain in the 109th
Congress, following Campbell's retirement from the Senate. A grand jury and
a task force of federal agencies are also investigating Abramoff's and
Scanlon's activities. Abramoff's assets have been frozen by a county
circuit court judge (employees of now-defunct Eshkol Academy claim he owes
them wages). Another of his clients, the Coushatta Tribe in Louisiana, has
sued him for $32 million and punitive damages. The lawsuit also names
Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's firm at the time of his dealings with the