Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MORE --- Blogging about Tribal Leaders and their troubles - from the Sacramento Bee

Tribal leaders fear Abramoff scandal fallout
By Peter Hecht -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Thursday, January 12, 2006

PALM SPRINGS - California tribal leaders, including the chairman of an Indian band that paid $10 million to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates, said Wednesday that they were victimized by the corruption scandal and now fear they may lose political clout.

Abramoff, a powerful lobbyist who raked in millions of dollars to represent the interests of Indian gambling tribes, pleaded guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery for doling out lavish vacations, golfing trips and other perks, including jobs for family members, to members of Congress.

The tribes have become major political players in Washington and in state capitals as Indian gambling has flourished and they have pushed for casino expansions. They now believe the money they paid Abramoff was diverted from their core interests.

On Wednesday, the specter of the Abramoff scandal dominated discussions on the opening day of the annual conference in Palm Springs of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, the state's leading tribal gambling group.

And one tribal leader, Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Riverside County, went so far as to apologize to the dozens of other tribes for having worked with the disgraced lobbyist.

"It really pains me, hurts me to know that this falls on all of us and is affecting all of Indian country," said Milanovich, whose tribe directed $10 million through Milanovich for lobbying services. "We apologize to all of your people."

In the opening address to the conference, Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association and a member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, said he fears the scandal may close the doors of Congress to gambling and non-gambling tribes that want their issues heard.

"The same people who want to take away our rights are those who will use the disgraceful acts of ... Abramoff to advance their cause," Miranda said. "This man violated the trust of members of Congress, Indian tribes, banks, major corporations and charitable organizations."

Miranda said Indian tribes should consider bypassing Washington's legendary K Street lobbying establishment, saying: "Now, more than ever, it is vital, absolutely vital, that tribal leaders be the ones to walk the halls of Congress themselves."

But that may not be easy.

"That guy (Abramoff) has done an awful lot of damage to Indian tribes," said former two-term Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who now works for a prominent law firm representing gambling tribes. "What happened in D.C. is that a lot of people who were very helpful toward Indian tribes are now scared to death to deal with them.

"But one person - Abramoff - was the perpetrator, and the tribes were the victims."

In an interview, Milanovich said the Agua Caliente Band, working with Abramoff, directed one-third of the $10 million to Abramoff's law firm, Greenberg Traurig, and two-thirds to Abramoff's business partner, Michael Scanlon. A public relations consultant, Scanlon also pleaded guilty in the political scandal.

Milanovich said much of the money was intended to help lobby Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California lawmakers to renegotiate tribal gambling compacts for casinos the Agua Caliente Band operates in Palm Springs and near Rancho Mirage. But, without offering specifics, he said the money may have been diverted by Abramoff for political influence-peddling in Washington.

"I don't think he used that money to our best interests," said Milanovich, whose tribe has not been implicated for any wrongdoing in the Abramoff scandal.

In his plea agreement, Abramoff, who at times represented tribes with competing gambling interests, admitted that he lied to his clients and overcharged them by tens of millions of dollars. He could face up to 30 years in prison, but federal prosecutors have indicated they will reduce the sentence by as much as two-thirds in exchange for his cooperation in a continuing investigation of members of Congress.

Abramoff admitted in the plea agreement that he and Scanlon, who pleaded guilty before him, "engaged in a course of conduct ... and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence."

Lawmakers who received gifts or large contributions from Abramoff and his associates and voted favorably for his clients, or whose spouses or former staffers went on to work for Abramoff, include former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; Rep. John Doolittle, R-Roseville; Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; [who has big problems: the Montana/Wyoming Tribe he tried to donate his contribution to will not accept the cash], and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. All have denied any wrongdoing.

Even if they committed no misdeeds, Campbell said Wednesday the scandal has cast a pall over Congress and that as many as 20 senators or representatives could face trouble in the 2006 elections.

"I know some of the Democrats say it is a Republican problem," Campbell said. " ... It is a problem for both sides of the aisle."

Many federal lawmakers who received contributions from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff are now returning the money or donating it to charity.

For example, on Monday, Shelley Berkley, a Democratic congresswoman from Nevada, said she was returning a $500 contribution she received in December 2003 from Milanovich on behalf of the Agua Caliente Band.

Milanovich said the tribe so far has been sent back some $11,000 in political contributions, which the tribe will donate to children's charities. But he said he was offended by the implications of the money being returned.

"We are receiving refunds on contributions made directly by us, implying that somehow we were involved in the subterfuge (by Abramoff)," Milanovich said. "I resent that. All of us resent that."

Miranda of the Pechanga tribe said he was disappointed that Milanovich felt compelled to apologize to the conference for having dealt with Abramoff.

"The tribe did nothing wrong. I don't want to see Chairman Milanovich apologize," Miranda said. "The tribe paid a lobbyist to do a job. How he did that job they had no control over."

Despite Miranda's call for Indian tribes to shun lobbyists and represent themselves in the halls of Congress, the CQ Weekly reported that many of Abramoff's former clients - including the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the Hope and the Mashpee Wampanoag tribes - are lining up to sign on with new lobbying firms on Capitol Hill.

"We have to maintain lobbyists," said Milanovich, who said Wednesday his tribe is going through a "cleansing process" of reflection in the wake of the scandal. "We need a presence in Washington. We're no different than a steel company or a pharmaceutical company that has lobbyists in Washington. But we will just be much more diligent on who we are retaining to represent us."

About the writer:
The Bee's Peter Hecht can be reached at (916) 326-5539 or


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