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Daschle’s downfall

WASHINGTON – Indian groups and tribes widely praised President Barack Obama’s choice of former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Ironically, Daschle’s ties to tribes were part of the cloud of controversy that ultimately led to him pulling out of contention for the position.

The tribal ties turned up as a result of media and political investigations of Daschle’s failure to pay taxes on a substantial portion of income and his connections to a top lobbying group.

Tax and other documents Daschle provided ultimately revealed that he had not paid approximately $146,000 in taxes and interest on a substantial portion of income. He has been working to rectify the matter.

Part of Daschle’s back taxes problem stemmed from $15,000 in charitable contributions he made to an Indian reservation, according to the New York Times. The paper did not name the tribe to which Daschle had donated the money.

Scrutiny over his tax issues led to questions about his connections to the lobby firm Alston & Bird. Since 2005, he had been a high-paid “special public policy advisor” at the firm, which has dozens of pharmaceutical, health and other clients – a fact some political foes said could have tainted his interests at HHS.

One of his clients while at the firm was the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, a regional organization that aims to shape national legislation and issues affecting tribal economic development.

Another of his clients was the law firm Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, which represents Indian tribes in legal and federal relations matters involving gaming, health care and other issues.

J. Kurt Luger, chairman of the tribal gaming group, and Thomas W. Fredericks, head of the law firm, did not respond to requests for comment by press time regarding their specific relationships with Daschle.

Daschle’s on-the-record reason for pulling out of contention for the HHS top job was that his nomination was becoming too much of a distraction to the Obama administration.

“If 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system has taught me anything, it has taught me that this work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction,” Daschle said in a statement released Feb. 3. “Right now, I am not that leader.”

Daschle said he was paying back the taxes he owed, and the White House has noted that he has never registered as a lobbyist. The distinction is important because Obama’s position has long been that he would not hire former lobbyists to be part of his administration.

Daschle said he came to his drop-out decision after reading a Feb. 3 editorial in the New York Times, which said his “tax shortfall is particularly troubling because it comes on the heels of another nominee’s failure to pay taxes due.”

Two other top Obama appointees have faced tax troubles; one, Nancy Killefer, who was to be Obama’s White House performance officer, withdrew just hours ahead of Daschle.

Press scrutiny aside, as late as Feb. 2, several Congress members seemed to think Daschle would be confirmed as HHS secretary – as did many in Indian country. Upon learning of his decision, several Indian health advocates were stunned.

The National Indian Health Board released a statement, saying its members were “saddened at the news of Senator Thomas Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of Health and Human Services.”

The group applauded Daschle’s nomination in November and worked long and hard with the presidential transition team to elevate Indian health issues with him.

“Indian country was fortunate and honored to have a strong advocate considered for this position,” the statement read.

Political consultant Chris Stearns, a Native-focused lawyer in Washington state, said Indian country and America at-large took a big hit with the loss of Daschle to head up Obama’s health care reform effort.

“He’s one of a handful of national leaders who had a real understanding of the failings of our health care system, the clout with Congress, and the trust of the president.

“With Daschle leading the charge, Indian people would have been able to bank on better health care. Now, we’ll have to wait and see who fills his shoes.”

Stearns and others are saying the loss of Daschle and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., as Obama’s choice to lead the Commerce Department, puts more pressure on the president to pick a big name or leader for his long-talked-about White House Indian liaison position. Both men have been strong advocates for Indian country. Richardson resigned from consideration in January as a result of allegations of improper business dealing in his state.

Hopes for a strong Daschle replacement are running high.

“I am confident that President Obama will choose a nominee who will respect the unique government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the federal government and work with Congress and the president to fulfill federal trust responsibilities,” said Reno Franklin, chairman of the National Indian Health Board.

NIHB officials said they were ready to support Obama’s next nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services and they would continue to educate the new administration on Indian health issues.

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