The Washington Post did this newspaper an unsavory disservice recently with
a misleading, sleight-of-hand comment on our editorial intents. In an
otherwise factual article, Post staff writers lames V. Grimaldi and R.
Jeffrey Smith opine rather carelessly that an Indian Country Today
editorial ("Mississippi Choctaws: The Benefits of Peace Chiefs," Vol. 20,
Iss. 28) somehow intended to support severely-discredited lobbyist Jack
Abramoff. In these times of Web journalism, the inference, an admitted
assumption by the Post writers (the word "apparent" qualified their
opinion), now requires our response.
The front-page Post article of March 12, "Gambling Interests Funded DeLay
Trip Later in 2000, Lawmaker's Vote Helped Defeat Regulatory Measure,"
largely reported on the convoluted ethical problems of House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay, with particular attention to a trip apparently financed
by Abramoff in part with tribal money.
The Mississippi Choctaw supported the trip with $25,000, according to the
documents cited by the Post. Two months later, DeLay helped kill
legislation opposed by the Choctaws. At that time, DeLay praised Choctaw
Chief Phillip Martin for his 25 years using the "free market as a tool to
better the lives of his fellow tribe members and neighbors," and introduced
into the Congressional Record an ICT editorial published that month that
happened to praise Choctaw leadership. This is the editorial mentioned by
the Post writers.
Stated Grimaldi and Smith:
"The editorial, from the magazine Indian Country Today, noted that Martin
had also wisely positioned his tribe 'to solidify friendships with
Republican powerhouses.' It said - in an apparent reference to Abramoff -
that the tribe and its chief had hired 'quality lobbyists as their new
wealth allowed' and successfully persuaded Republican leaders that the
tribal revenue from gambling and other ventures should not be taxed."
In remarking that the ICT editorial contained "an apparent reference to
Abramoff," the Post writers implied some kind of endorsement for the
controversial lobbyist. For the record, there was no "apparent reference to
Abramoff" in the ICT editorial. There would never be an occasion where ICT
would encourage Indian leadership to hire or use negative or shady
The ICT editorial happened to be an acknowledgement of Choctaw history and
an appreciation of Chief Phillip Martin. It praised the veteran and
continuously re-elected Choctaw leader for building and helping to sustain
a viable economy for his people and for strengthening a "good neighbor"
policy. The editorial recognized Martin's ability to work with a
predominantly Republican Mississippi political structure and steer his
tribe to continued success in the face of many negative factors.
Further, we endorsed the capacity of Indian people to employ all tools
available to pursue their political and economic causes and objectives.
That means lawyers and lobbyists, as well as engineers and business
managers. We endorsed the acumen of tribal leaders who build from the
inside and create lasting alliances with their neighboring communities and
who can broker deals with the whole range of social sectors, from unions to
representatives in government. And we praised the Choctaws for successfully
sustaining their Native language and culture and working diligently for
their peoples' welfare.
Every political endeavor has pitfalls, and there are bad lobbyists just as
there are bad cops, bad teachers and bad journalists. It appears now that
one of the Choctaw lobbyists, who had several tribes as clients, turned out
to be not only very well paid and empowered by the tribes (over $82 million
from 2001 - 2003), but a shady character as well: instrumental in
constructing his share of Indian-against-Indian and
Does the web of contributions and Abramoff's questionable practices mean
tribes become sinister simply for employing lobbyists - or that they should
not employ lobbyists? Reality dictates that it cannot.
Does it mean that tribes all too often use their economic power against
each other's interests? Yes. Does it mean that too often tribes would
rather pour millions into questionable consultants rather than trust and
build Native institutions that can produce needed results? Yes.
Abramoff is currently under investigation by a federal task force, the
Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. DeLay
got in trouble three times just last year with admonishments for breaking
House ethics rules. The potential ethics violation involving Abramoff's
soliciting funds from the Choctaws for the trip are difficult to prove. But
Abramoff is increasingly targeted for his role in pitting tribes against
each other and for the misuse of funds in political contributions.
Insulting e-mails attributed to him, calling down in racist terms the very
Indian leaders he was purportedly assisting, destroyed his image with the
While ICT endorses the use of quality lobbyists and any other required
personnel in working for tribal success, nowhere were Abramoff or his
erstwhile partner, Michael Scanlon, in the picture in our editorial; they
were not even in mind. That these two (there will be others) turned out to
be treacherous to the tribes is another story, which ICT has covered
extensively. ICT news, analysis and commentary pieces have focused on the
Abramoff scandals since 2002. Consistently critical of the man and his
methods, the ICT thrust is that this story is a cautionary tale not just
for the lobbying culture of K Street, but for the tribes as well.
A serious fissure in the Republican Party is developing around lobbyists
like Abramoff, DeLay's troubles and the rising sleaze of Washington
consultants and lobbyists. That a number of Indian tribes played the tragic
fool in some of that should also serve as a powerful lesson. Congress also
should not spare any effort in investigating the culpability of any tribal
leader in these disturbing events.
For the record, here is what ICT actually wrote about Abramoff this past
"Scalawag is the word for lobbyist this week. Of course, one would not want
to generalize it to all lobbyists everywhere, but scalawag is the word for
one particular bunch and so the definition is in order. We use the word to
define Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations consultant
Michael Scanlon, whom by all accounts have deceived, manipulated and
wreaked havoc on half a dozen - sometimes willing - tribes. The brazen duo
paid millions to Ralph Reed, boy blue of the right-wing Christian set, to
help them shut down the Tigua Tribe of Texas' Speaking Rock casino; they
then turned around to suction off millions of dollars from the same Tigua
Indian tribe, presuming to help them reopen their casino - all the while
disdaining and insulting their duped clients."
And: "For the two greedy and underhanded lobbyists, the loop of influence,
at least in Indian country, is shrinking. For the tribes so wantonly taken
to the flim-flam cleaners, a review of motivations and strategic thinking
is intensely recommended. Too many Indian tribes continue to play pin-ball
with their public image while spending millions on treasonous consultants;
there are better and more useful ways to gain influence and prevail
Grimaldi and Smith no doubt caught DeLay's inclusion of ICT into the
Congressional Record and added the coincidental editorial to their mix. But
drawing (assuming) a direct link of support by ICT to Abramoff absolutely
missed the mark of our intent. The inference perhaps suffers from the new
Web journalism's careless approach, which is not befitting the esteemed
quality of the Post. It may be symptomatic of conducting keyword searches
and reading backward instead of forward, if reading the article at all. For
example, the Post writers didn't bother to research our newspaper, calling
it a "magazine."
Context and understanding of the Indian world is best derived by carefully
listening to the whole story from start to finish, complete with attention
to points of fact, tone and expression. Considering the actual content and
intent of our editorial, the carelessly-stated assumption by the Post
writers represents it out of context.
The Post writers are conflating us into the ongoing scandal, apparently
scraping for new material, as they were scooped on the main story by a
Capitol Hill weekly, which in turn was scooped by an Internet blog. It's
another illustration that the Washington press corps has two modes of
behavior: lap dog and lemming. When it isn't being coddled and fed scraps
by government officials, it sometimes rushes in a mindless mass after a big
story until it falls off a cliff.
Is it news that Washington lobbyists are greedy and sleazy and find kindred
souls in Congress? Yes, but where also is the breathless coverage of the
lobby for the automobile industry or agribusiness or pharmaceuticals, to
name three of hundreds? The difference here is not just that Abramoff was
greedier than many and stupid enough to disparage his clients in e-mails,
but that he dealt with the exotic world of Indian tribes.
Indian gaming has already been demonized enough in the mainstream press to
create a presumption of wrongdoing, but there is also the perennial double
standard at work here. The rules of American society apply to everyone but
Indians. After all, how did all that Indian land change hands? What just
happened to the Western Shoshone in the halls of Congress this past year?
Every other interest in the country can hire a lobbyist without raising an
eyebrow and even wield them with fury against the interests and even basic
freedoms of American Indians, but it is somehow questionable to say that
tribes need high-quality representation. Only one columnist in the media
frenzy, the Post's own E.J. Dionne, has mentioned that tribes have real
enemies in Congress who need to be fended off.
Unfortunately, these days any off-hand, unsubstantiated remark, once
published, will trigger automatic waves of response based without question
on the first mistaken or assumed "apparent" perception. No doubt the
quality of journalism declines as home publishing, Internet clipping and
freelance sleuths blend and devour one another for content. This is the
promising but frustrating and often misleading reality of journalism in our
times. It does not serve Indian country very well.