WASHINGTON - For all the snarling directed at Jack Abramoff and his
associate Michael Scanlon at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing
on "Lobbying Practices Involving Indian Tribes" (an early title, later
changed), one big dog hasn't barked at all. That dog's name is "Lobbying
Practices Involving Capitol Hill and the White House"; and as in the old
Sherlock Holmes story, where the watchdog didn't bark in the night, silence
may be construed as a clue. Only one senator, Daniel K. Inouye, so much as
hinted at a larger-than-advertised presence during a Sept. 29 Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs hearing.
"Sadly," the Hawaii Democrat said, "excessive fees and lost capital is a
matter of everyday life in our nation's capitol."
The fees Abramoff and Scanlon drew from six gaming tribes totaled $66
million over three years, in other words not nearly as much as six leading
corporations would spend on lobbying over the same duration. In some cases,
the tribes seem to have achieved what they wanted. It may be unfair to
suggest we're not hearing about those cases because what some of them
wanted was to hinder the entry of other tribes into the casino gaming
industry; much will come to light in future hearings the committee has
planned. But name-calling aside, it won't be clear how far Abramoff and
Scanlon exceeded standard lobbying practice in Washington until those
hearings are held, or until the grand jury that is also investigating hands
For now let us note that all tribes are made up of citizens who can vote in
federal elections in a de jure Democracy of government by the people. But a
few tribes seem to have laid hands on the levers of federal governance only
when they came up with $66 million for channeling into a de facto
Plutocracy of government by the wealthy.
As the "Mr. Inside" of Republican lobbyists during the Bush administration,
Abramoff plied the lobbying trade in Washington with the firm of Greenberg
Traurig, the same outfit that represented the George W. Bush campaign for
the presidency during the contested 2000 election. According to a remark
from an SCIA member, Greenberg Traurig didn't know about the fees paid to
Abramoff separately by tribes at the same time they were paying the firm
for his services. The firm parted ways with Abramoff shortly after The
Washington Post exposed his tribal contracts.
Until he became a political problem child, Abramoff's "access" among
Republicans in the corridors of power came to be accepted as reportable
truth, part and parcel of his professional reputation. He worked the
appropriations committees in Congress more so than the policy ones, and
some members of some tribes say that he was successful in that work.
"Access" to GOP decision-makers seems to have been his selling point in
drumming up contracts that Scanlon would then serve in a communications
Abramoff based his approach to the Saginaw Chippewa on his "access" to Rep.
Tom DeLay, tribal subchief Bernie Sprague said from the witness table Sept.
29. Sprague always opposed the tribe's contracts with Abramoff and Scanlon,
but he recounted a presentation from tribal legislative affairs employee
Christopher Petras to the full tribal council that carried the vote: "Jack
[Abramoff] having access to this guy [DeLay] was going to do a lot of
things for us."
DeLay, R-Texas, is the majority party leader in the House of
Representatives and one of President Bush's closest political allies.
Scanlon is a former spokesperson on DeLay's staff. Abramoff has been one of
the GOP's top fundraisers in recent years. Abramoff directed at least one
tribal donation to the Republican National Committee, according to the
Senate committee. According to testimony before the committee, Abramoff
also directed a donation of $40,000 from a charity organization he
controlled to a DeLay foundation.
DeLay has denied recent involvement with Scanlon, or with Abramoff's tribal
clientele, and he has called for anyone trading on his name to stop. Three
DeLay aides, but not the House Majority Leader himself, are under current
indictment for alleged illegal fundraising in Texas. DeLay himself has a
history of ethics transgressions in the House that aren't helping him as
Abramoff and Scanlon make the news in congressional districts across the
Sprague said under further questioning that he does not remember Abramoff
ever boasting of access to the White House or to any senator on the
committee. But Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., got an admission from Petras that
he had his picture taken with President Bush at the White House, and with
close Bush advisor Karl Rove. The Saginaw Chippewa donation to the RNC
might explain such "access," but Abramoff's hand in the donation can hardly
be left out of account.
This proves nothing of DeLay, Bush or Rove in any court of law, of course,
but even in a Plutocracy the court of public opinion counts for something.
If only a few of the charges against Abramoff and Scanlon prove true,
they'll have a hard time working again in Indian country, as Sen. Ben
Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the SCIA and the Senate's only
Indian member, stated bluntly.
But Capitol Hill may prove more welcoming. At a first glance given by the
SCIA on Sept. 29, Abramoff and Scanlon basically exaggerated many of the
lobbying practices long established on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists ordinarily
line up (or help to line up) candidates for office that would be more
favorable on the issue they're lobbying than incumbents or other
candidates. They send, or advise to be sent, slick brochures advocating
their favored positions, and in other ways they run or advise to be run
communications campaigns on issues and on elections. They regularly
approach political officeholders and their staff members.
There's a healthy place for all this in American politics, but in tribal
politics? Perhaps the singularities of federal Indian law will allow us
glimpses of indulgence in this instance that remain concealed in others.
Perhaps Abramoff and Scanlon have erred primarily in not understanding
tribal law as well as they understand Washington's laws on lobbying. Or
perhaps they simply didn't know tribal leaders as well as they know