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Senate report shows tragic victims of a lobbyist gone bad

WASHINGTON – The care and thoroughness of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee report on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s criminal schemes demonstrates what many have said, and not as many have believed, about the scandal that has the FBI investigating everything from the timing of congressional votes to the calendars of congressional members – namely, that tribes were victims, not participants.

It still doesn’t go down easily, this view that tribal leaders and executives who signed off on million-dollar invoices without raising questions were also victims; witness the Internet accounts that have misrepresented the committee report to cast tribes in the wrongdoers’ role. But the committee report implies that all six of the scammed tribes were victims in the sense that they never would have been dealing with Abramoff and his communications associate, Michael Scanlon, if Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Choctaw hadn’t been victimized first.

Of the many relative innocents crucified between this pair of thieves, Martin emerges from the committee report as the most nearly tragic figure among them. Under Martin’s leadership, the once nearly extinguished tribe had restored its economic prosperity without the backing of a casino. Coming on top of all that, a casino and resort vaulted the tribe into a national prominence in the business world that few, if any, other tribes have matched. The Mississippi Choctaw became a model for other tribes. Martin was revered among admiring tribal leaders, and little short of a similar status in Congress. Reference to the “Mississippi Miracle” became commonplace on Capitol Hill ... along with Delta-bound golf junkets and spa treatments for congressional staff, but never mind that now.

In the momentous year of 1994, Republicans won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, some of Martin’s key Democratic allies in Congress retired, and the chief decided he wouldn’t be as effective lobbying congressional members in person, as he had always done in the past. He decided to hire a lobbyist to represent the tribe’s interests in Washington. Because a steady procession of GOP-sponsored bills took aim at tribal interests, Martin decided on a lobbyist whose views would get a hearing from the Republican majority. The chief was living up to his reputation, charting a course for his people in changing circumstances as real leaders must. And he was still conducting himself in that way when he hired Abramoff.

For a few years after the hire, Abramoff won Martin’s confidence and secured his own reputation as a lobbyist, tapping his GOP friendships, connections and passions against regulation and taxes to fend off congressional threats to Mississippi Choctaw interests. If there was ever a time when Abramoff worked 24/7 for his tribal clients (as a friend of his stated in an effort to get Abramoff a reduced prison sentence), this was it.

Then, unbeknownst to anyone, Abramoff went bad in a big way. He committed wire fraud to get a stake in a fleet of gambling boats. As that business sank toward bankruptcy, Abramoff found himself in need of cash. He recruited Michael Scanlon for the tribal fleecing operation they code-named “Gimme Five”, from which the committee report takes its title. Martin questioned some of the expenses and activities chalked up to Gimme Five, according to testimony included in the committee report, but in view of Abramoff’s past effectiveness he was slow to act. Armed with a credibility drawn from Martin and from Abramoff’s work for the Mississippi Choctaw, the Gimme Five partnership of Abramoff and Scanlon began to topple the dominoes all across Indian country. The other tribes that lined up to fall for them were the Louisiana Coushatta, the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, the Saginaw Chippewa, the Agua Caliente and Sandia Pueblo. Abramoff and Scanlon would vary their operation slightly from tribe to tribe, but their entree was made the minute Abramoff’s work won Martin’s abiding trust.

So while Indian country at large couldn’t be further removed from Gimme Five, as Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., emphasized June 22 just before the SCIA voted to release its Gimme Five report, six tribes wasted most of more than $66 million because one chief of proven merit committed himself to the farsighted and skillful leadership of his people. That is the intractable and ironic tragedy of Gimme Five.

But all boosterism aside, the tragedy does contain a silver lining or two. For one thing, the committee report should encourage Martin and some other tribal leaders and associates to sleep the sleep of the just: no small matter. For another, once and for all and indisputably, in view of the committee’s careful investigation and exceptional scholarship, most of the Gimme Five tribes were victims of their leadership’s desire, in a couple of cases their desperation, to better their people’s lives. In the two cases where Abramoff and Scanlon undermined tribal elections to accomplish their foul deeds, their way was made by nonmembers of the victimized tribes. In only one of the six case studies prepared by the committee is there seemingly abundant evidence of corruption within the membership of a tribe, and even there, it was a matter of basic human strategic instincts responding to vicious temptations, on offer from a practiced temp-ter; even there, it met with a stout resistance.

Other people and organizations touched by the tentacles of Gimme Five, the committee report leaves in a kind of limbo. It offers no firm conclusions on the conduct of the two individuals Abramoff identified to tribes as his go-to people for winning favor from the Interior Department: Italia Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, and Steven Griles, former deputy secretary of Interior. But it takes an obviously dim view of Federici’s testimony and alleged activities, as well as an occasionally dubious one of Griles’s. Republican heavyweights Ralph Reed, the Christian-wing, anti-gaming organizer and candidate for lieutenant-governor in Georgia, and Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Relief, fare much worse, though again the committee stops well short of lodging criminal accusations. Michael Chapman, the Menominee tribal member, former BIA employee and polished communications specialist who earned a small fortune for introducing Abramoff to one of the Gimme Five tribes, is not accused of wrongdoing, but Abramoff’s panic over the presumed appearance of his name on a tribal client’s billing list seems to remain a point of curiosity for the committee.

The BIA gets only passing mention, none of it incriminating. The committee report mostly steers clear of the Senate, the House of Representatives and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Federal agencies continue to investigate various aspects of the Gimme Five scheme.

The committee report can be accessed at the committee Web site, http://indian.senate.gov/public.