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Talking point: Blame the Indians for Abramoff

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We've read so many columns lately with the same anti-Indian message that
it's almost as if somebody issued a set of talking points. The Jack
Abramoff scandal isn't the product of sleazy lobbying or greedy congressmen
or even a degenerating political system, goes the current line -- it's the
fault of all those tribal casinos.

Can't say we're surprised at this chorus. Even though the few tribes that
did hire Abramoff have been treated by investigators as his victims, they
make too juicy a target for a growing array of anti-Indian forces to pass
up. Political posturing adds to the cacophony.

Republicans tarred by Abramoff's networking are looking for a way to drag
in Democrats. They figure they can defuse the scandal, like such previous
Washington disasters as the savings and loan debacle, by making it
bipartisan. Their gimmick is to fudge the line between the crooked lobbyist
and the legitimate interest that used his service and point to all the
Democrats taking money "from Abramoff's clients," meaning from the Indian
tribes.

Beneath the din, some of the points are actually well-founded. The scandal
has exposed a seamy intersection of narrow tribal intrigue, gaming money
and Washington influence-peddling. Some tribal behavior deserves to be
censured. The New York Times, in the least bad of the current commentaries,
justly observed on Jan. 16 that "some tribal leaders are slipping into the
worst habits of casino operators elsewhere." Its editorial homes in on one
of the most disturbing episodes of the Abramoff scandal, the attempt by the
Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to prevent the Jena Band of Choctaws to open a
(presumably) competing casino.

This sub-scandal reaches high into the Interior Department. It ought to be
fully investigated and condemned. So should be other cases of inter-tribal
elbowing, such as the delayed approval of the casino application of the
Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi (Gun Lake Tribe) in Michigan
or the more shadowy allegations that established tribes have worked behind
the scenes to block recognition of potential competitors. These attempts to
demerit competitors clearly violate the spirit of the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act, which is to make dozens of tribes wealthy rather than a few
tribes obscenely rich.

Before we seek purification, however, we have to separate the real sins
from the false charges and the fog of propaganda now filling the air.

The spate of recent polemics is serving up a pudding of old cliches and
falsehoods, studded with some truly amazing plums of hypocrisy. Our friends
at The Wall Street Journal weighed in twice in one week. Staff writer
Holman Jenkins, in a Jan. 11 column called "Indian Taker," stated his
termination agenda bluntly. Tracing the "scandal" back to the Clinton
administration, he repeated the slander that gaming interests had
resurrected defunct "tribes" (his quotation marks) as a cover for casinos
and that they had corrupted government officials to win federal
recognition.

(The Mashantucket Pequots, founders of Foxwoods, were actually recognized
by a congressional act during the Reagan administration, five years before
the gaming boom; and all of the recognition petitions he cites go even
further back, to the late 1970s. But, oh well, as a Journal editorial page
editor once famously told a reporter, "Don't bother me with facts. I'm
writing editorials.")

But the tide, gloated Jenkins, "has already begun to recede." Although
dozens of "defunct 'tribes' still seek recognition, the backlash was
already under way."

"We're still a long way from any senator [John McCain leaps to mind] being
willing to say 'enough' to the enduring nonsense of Indian 'sovereignty' --
but even that may come."

This column stands without comment as a signpost of a dangerous
progression. Incessant propaganda from the likes of author Jeff Benedict
and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has sought to
delegitimize historic tribes which have continuously occupied reservations
from early colonial days. More ignorant minds have accepted and embellished
their distortions until they became the accepted wisdom of the mass media,
and generated calls for a truly vicious shift in public policy. Sen. McCain
should slap Jenkins down hard at the earliest opportunity.

Jenkins might be over his head, but the other Journal contributor, Fergus
M. Bordewich, can hardly plead ignorance. Bordewich wrote a book a few
years back, unfortunately entitled "Killing the White Man's Indian," that
annoyed quite a few of its subjects but made the interesting point that old
cliches no longer fit the vigorous changes in Indian country. But in his
Journal piece, "The Least Transparent Industry in America" (Jan. 5), he
fell back on a set of new but just as false cliches. Sovereignty, he wrote,
creates an "iron curtain" around the disposition of casino earnings that
"offers an open invitation to money launderers of all varieties."

This statement is simply false. Tribal casinos are just as subject to
federal money-laundering supervision as any other gaming facility or
financial institution. They are required to file reports with the U.S.
Treasury on all cash transactions over $10,000 and on smaller "suspicious
transactions" spotted by floor bosses. Disposition of casino revenues is
rigidly controlled by IGRA. No other type of gaming business, and certainly
no private corporation, has a legal requirement to spend its profits on
health, education, housing and government expenses before paying dividends.
Even state lotteries have become notoriously adept at funneling money away
from the education they are supposed to benefit.

We can't fault Bordewich for requesting more transparency in casino
operations. We agree that it would benefit tribal members and the casinos.
But we would be more impressed if he were quoting the open sources that are
available rather than the exaggerated attacks of anti-casino activists.

Still, Bordewich looks like a scholar next to the National Review Online
entrant, George Neumayr's Jan. 10 column "Liar's Dice." The subtitle sums
it up: "Indian casinos are a shameless monument to the most cynical
minority politics." Neumayr is especially enraged by two points -- one,
that Howard Dean is pro-Indian; and two, that some "mansion-dwelling tribal
chieftains" live "in posh neighborhoods." Can you imagine how National
Review would react to anyone who complained that corporate executives live
in rich suburbs?

Oblivious to the irony, Neumayr continued, "There is no bottom to the
absurdities of Indian casino politics. The fallout from the Abramoff
scandal, instead of increasing sympathy for these casino hucksters, should
outrage the public into ending their racket."

These diatribes have their impact. The Republican counterattack against
tribal campaign contributions has unnerved some Democrats. In one
astounding display of bipartisan hypocrisy, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, the
Democratic congressman from Nevada, announced on Jan. 10 that she would
return a $500 donation she had received two years earlier from Richard
Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but
that she would keep $1,500 she received from Abramoff's former employer,
the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

Now, Milanovich is a solid, respected tribal leader. Greenberg Traurig is a
center, if not an inventor, of the influence-peddling,
campaign-contributing nexus in Washington. The Miami-based law firm was
playing the contribution "bundling" game when Abramoff was running for
president of his sixth-grade class. But Berkley's explanation for taking
the money from the big-time lobbyists, rather than the tribal leader, was
that, according to her spokesman, "she knows the people who made these
contributions."

There in a nutshell is the worst scenario for the tribes. The Washington
fund-raising, lobbying influence game will go on as it always has, no
matter what cosmetic pseudo-reform gets served up as election year cover.
But Indian gaming, alone of all the legitimate business interests in the
country, stands to become the pariah and the scapegoat.