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Tribal dispute raises new questions of Abramoff; Donations to senator scrutinized

Abramoff's former firm held three fundraisers for senator investigating Abramoff

By John Byrne | RAW STORY Editor


A simmering battle between factions of a Native American tribe in Iowa has raised new questions about the dealings of tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his relationship with a conservative advocacy group and donations to members of Congress, RAW STORY has learned.

During a leadership dispute in 2003, a faction of the Iowa Meskwaki tribe seized control of the tribe’s casino and hired Abramoff’s firm to represent them in Washington. The tribe’s former leaders have questioned whether Abramoff-linked donations made to Iowa’s senators and their political action committees influenced their actions during the conflict.

Iowa’s senators stress that they never took sides in the dispute. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin say donations from the lobbyists and Abramoff’s clients in 2003 and 2004—which total more than $50,000—had no bearing on their actions. Sen. Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is currently investigating Abramoff’s lobbying activities.

The new leadership of the tribe has also revealed that they gave $50,000 to an organization founded by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. The group has come under scrutiny for allegedly pressuring Interior to favor Abramoff’s clients.

In conversations with RAW STORY, each faction highlighted different aspects of tribe’s dealings with Abramoff and put new focus on political contributions made during and after the leadership struggle.

Factions vie for control

In late 2002, a Meskwaki faction led by Homer Bear Jr. circulated a petition to recall the tribe’s elected leadership, led by a man named Alex Walker. After several months during which the tribal council refused to hold new elections, Bear’s faction seized the tribe’s $3 million-a week casino and had a relative of a long-dead tribal chief—a janitor—appoint Bear and his associates as the new leaders.

The Walker council – led by Alex Walker had been elected in 2001, defeating members of the Bear faction. The fight came to a head after Walker dismissed members of the tribe’s gaming commission, and members of the Bear faction commandeered the casino and the tribe’s headquarters.

For two months, the appointed Bear council controlled the Tama County casino. But when the U.S. Department of Interior said they could only recognize leaders elected under the tribe’s constitution in May 2003, officials shuttered the facility and froze federal aid to the tribe.

That same month, Washington lobbyists Jack Abramoff and his associate Michael Smith made contact with the Bear faction offering his services. In the months that followed, with aid from the lobbyists and encouragement from Iowa’s senators Grassley and Harkin, Interior reversed their position, certifying new elections won by the appointed Bear council.

After federal marshals closed the casino, Grassley and Harkin sought to mediate. The two senators assert that they sought only to end a year-long standoff over control of the tribe and the closure of its casino, which left more than 1,200 people jobless and jeopardized basic social services.

Walker and his allies say they turned away a petition recalling their leadership because tribal members said they had been intimidated or duped. Walker, however, has produced only two affidavits from members who said they’d wanted their names removed.

Though neither senator took a position, Walker sees the senators’ intervention as supporting Bear. In pushing Interior to hold new elections, he believes the senators tacitly endorsed the takeover of the casino and the appointment of new leaders outside of the process prescribed in the tribal constitution.

“I don’t think anybody would stand for a bunch of senators taking over the White House, or a bunch of the state legislators taking over the governor, saying [it was] because you didn’t take the advice of the attorney general,” Walker said. “Nobody wanted to arrest these guys. Nobody said they were breaking the law.”

Donations made to group founded by cabinet secretary

The machinations which legitimized Bear’s control of the casino—and the Meskwaki tribe—are as complex as they are heated. RAW STORY’s examination has found large contributions to campaigns and a questionable lobby group; dedicated resolve from two U.S. senators to resolve a conflict that left many jobless; and an internecine feud fought tooth and nail for control of an Indian tribe.

Tom Jochum, a spokesman for the Bear council, revealed last week that Bear gave $50,000 during the dispute to a group founded by Gale Norton, who by 2003 was Secretary of the Interior, the cabinet agency which oversees tribal affairs.

“It was Abramoff’s suggestion,” Jochum recalls, saying the lobbyist remarked, “if you want to be a player in Washington, [the group’s leader] is extremely close to Gale Norton.”

Jochum’s disclosure raises the amount of known tribal donations to Norton’s former advocacy group, Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, to $300,000. He calls the donation “regrettable.”

“If I had to take one thing back, that I was involved with, that would have been it,” he said.

Emails obtained by the Washington Post show that Abramoff used a contact at Norton’s former group to pressure Interior regarding tribal decisions. A Norton spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Lobbyists donate to members involved in resolving dispute

Walker also questions donations made to Sen. Grassley and his Hawkeye political action committee.

Bank statements obtained by Walker’s group show that Bear’s council wrote checks to Grassley and Hawkeye during the period they were seeking recognition from Interior. One of the donations—a $5,000 check to Hawkeye—was paired with a $5,000 donation made by Abramoff on the same day, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Reports from the Hawkeye treasurer also reveal that the PAC received $8,000 from two other tribes, both Abramoff clients.

Jochum confirmed that the Bear council had also written a $4,000 check to Grassley’s campaign in July 2003. He called the donation “a drop in the bucket,” saying that it “pales in comparison to the millions of dollars that the Walker council spent trying to regain power.”

Grassley’s office says Abramoff’s then-firm, Greenberg Traurig, hosted a reception in Chicago with Sonnenschein, another law firm, for the senator’s campaign committee that month.

Asked whether Grassley conversed with Abramoff about the Iowa tribe, Kozeny said, “Senator Grassley doesn’t remember a conversation.”

Grassley’s Hawkeye PAC received numerous donations from Abramoff’s former firm during the dispute and into 2004 when the senator worked to get a $5.5 million grant for a new tribal high school.

During the dispute, Abramoff and another member of the firm gave $6,000 to Grassley’s campaign committee, which was paired with a $4,000 contribution from the Bear faction. The Saginaw Chippewa, another of Abramoff’s clients, gave $5,000 to Hawkeye in October of that year.

On Dec. 31, 2003, the day the casino reopened under the Bear council’s leadership, three members of the firm gave $250 to Hawkeye. Four other Greenberg Traurig employees gave $2,750 the following year.

No known members of the lobbying firm connected to the Meskwaki account gave money to Harkin’s PAC during the leadership battle. Smith, who signed off on Greenberg Traurig’s lobbying disclosure forms, wrote a $5,000 check to Harkin’s PAC in June of the following year, and gave $5,000 to Harkin shortly before the casino was seized.

The Bear council has also called attention the role of Lowell Junkins, a former Iowa legislator who asked Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) to weigh in for the Walker council. Boswell did write a letter to Interior, though he too says he did not take sides.

Junkins collected a $1.6 million arbitration-mediated settlement when the Walker was given access to tribal accounts in mid-2003. Walker says the payment was a debt owed Junkins for his services; Jochum says Junkins defrauded the tribe.

Grassley, Harkin begged for resolution

Some 1,281 Iowans lost their jobs when federal marshals closed the casino. The closure—and the decision by Interior to terminate federal aid—put critical tribal needs like healthcare and child welfare in danger.

“For these federal agencies to remain uninvolved in resolving this dispute is unacceptable,” Grassley said in a June 2003 statement. “It is amazing to me that these agencies have stood idly by as over 1,000 area residents have lost their jobs.”

Both of Iowa’s senators penned letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the National Indian Gaming Commission begging they help to resolve the standoff.

“At this point,” Sen. Grassley wrote Norton in June, 2003, “it appears that only a special election, held in accordance with the tribal constitution and recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will bring final resolution to this matter.”

Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Sen. Grassley, stressed that the senator did not take sides. She provided RAW STORY with a list of individuals the senator or his staff met with in efforts to get the casino reopened, which included the attorneys from both sides.

Among those the senator’s staff met was Todd Boulanger, an Abramoff lobbyist who is said to have drafted a letter signed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) encouraging Interior to intervene in a manner favoring another Abramoff client.

Grassley press Secretary Beth Levine said the senator “did not use any letters written by Todd Boulanger when working on this issue for his constituents.”

Kozeny added the senator did not meet with anyone from Interior but did place a call to Indian Affairs; she said the acting head returned the senator’s call and spoke with a member of his staff.

Grassley’s office stated that Greenberg Traurig held fundraisers for the senator and his campaign committee in 2004. A March 2004 event was held in Miami for Grassley’s campaign, and a July 2004 fundraiser for his PAC was held in Washington. Kozeny says Abramoff was at neither event, and notes that Abramoff had left the firm by July 2004.

Abramoff “has organized fundraisers for Senator Grassley in the past,” Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum said.

Investigation of Abramoff continues; Grassley leads push

Despite donations from Abramoff and his associates, Sen. Grassley, along with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has championed an investigation into Abramoff’s lobbying activities. On Tuesday, Grassley’s Finance Committee expressed concerns that Abramoff was not being cooperative.

Asked whether the senator had concerns about leading an investigation into someone who had repeatedly raised money for his campaign, Kozeny said no.

“Absolutely not,” she said. The investigation “demonstrates that Sen. Grassley accepts campaign contributions that are legal with no strings attached, and he conducts his Senate business, oversight and good government work without regard to campaign contributions.”

Kozeny notes that the senator has taken money from special interests in the past and voted against the donor’s wishes. Grassley supports reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada—a measure the industry opposes—despite having received more than $87,000 from pharmaceutical and health product firms during his last campaign.

Sen. McCain, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is spearheading an investigation into Abramoff’s activities as they relate to Indian tribes.

A member close to the deposed Walker council says McCain staffers told them there are additional emails written by Abramoff or his associates that name their tribe.

McCain’s spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the assertion, saying she is unable to comment on pending investigations.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum said questions about political donations or the use of funds should be made of the groups that made and received the donations.

“Mr. Abramoff and his team provided recommendations on where a tribe should spend its political dollars, but ultimately the tribal council made the final decision on what political contributions to make,” Blum said. “Questions regarding the ultimate use of those funds can only be answered by the recipient organization or entity, not by Mr. Abramoff.”

Three of the lobbyists that Jochum says the tribe worked with have exited Abramoff’s lobby firm, Greenberg Traurig

Abramoff left the company in March 2004 amid a Senate probe. Kevin Ring departed that October after revelations that he had accepted $135,000 from Abramoff’s partner Michael Scanlon, a former press secretary to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Smith, who was scrutinized for $20,000 said linked to Scanlon and ultimately absolved by the firm, left in January.

“Mike Smith, and Kevin Ring, and other members of that firm, did remarkable work for the tribe,” Jochum said. “Their lobbying efforts brought five times as much money to the tribe as the tribe paid them. Their efforts in Washington helped lead to a democratic solution to what was a constitutional crisis.”

Smith, who hails from Iowa, has had a longstanding relationship with Sen. Harkin and was Gore’s Midwest campaign manager in 2000. His sister was recently hired by Harkin as a legislative aide. Reached by phone, Smith declined to comment.

Harkin’s spokeswoman Alison Dobson said the Democrat had sought only to bring a resolution.

“What Sen. Harkin did in the Meskwaki tribal dispute was the best thing for the Meskwaki people and the best thing for the state of Iowa,” Dobson said. “He made sure that there were free and fair elections and encouraged both sides to work in good faith.”

Money matters; Costs of lobbying

While the competing councils duked it out, their lobbyists and lawyers profited. Abramoff’s firm pocketed $75,000 a month—some $300,000 in 2003, and another $900,000 in 2004. Meanwhile, Walker’s attorneys saw hundreds of thousands in fees of their own—more than $300,000 in one month alone when his council was allowed access to the tribe’s accounts in mid-2003.

Walker and Jochum each tell an extraordinary story. Jochum accuses Walker of seeking kickbacks; Walker says Jochum tried to extort him. Neither agrees on much, save the ferocity of the fight.

Tribal accounts, provided to RAW STORY by Walker’s allies, show that $400,000 in hundred dollar bills was withdrawn from an account opened by the Bear faction shortly before the first elections in May and four days after the National Indian Gaming Commission ordered the casino to be closed.

Jochum said he didn’t know about the withdrawal. Betsey McCloskey, a casino spokeswoman, did not return a call seeking comment.

Walker’s faction also questions large wire transfers made by the Bear faction during the dispute. Jochum says the transfers weren’t significant, noting the Walker council had their time in court and had lost on repeated occasions.

“If there’s a suspicion of money or expenditures they can go to the National Indian Gaming Board in Iowa,” he remarked.

Since the Bear council took control, Jochum has also seen an increase in receipts. Under Walker, Jochum was paid less than $100,000 a year; now he makes $25,000 a month. Jochum says he now employs three people to assist his efforts.

Walker questions Jochum’s expenses.

“I think it’s a sham,” Walker said. “He doesn’t really need a staff. When I had a lobbyist, I paid my lobbyist $40,000 a year and he did an adequate job.”

Jochum defends his fees. He says he helped pass the strongest Indian child welfare act in the country, and notes that with the aid of Abramoff’s firm, the tribe got a $5.5 million grant to build a new high school.

Jochum expressed disgust that so much money had been spent by the Walker side, including legal fees, security expenses and the Junkins settlement. He called the Walker faction “corrupt punks.”

“These guys were corrupt,” Jochum, a lobbyist for the tribe, said. “Look at the results of the election. Even the Board of Indian Affairs, when they came in and both sides agreed… our three guys were the top vote getters.”

Walker continues to appeal. He says he believes lobbyists are “fleecing” Indian tribes.

“The crux of problem – you have all these people that know there is a quick buck to be made,” he added. “They’re pretty smooth talkers – but we’re talking about uneducated people… American Indians need to be educated; they’re probably the most undereducated group in the United States.”

Asked about lobbyists’ aid in obtaining a grant for a new high school, Walker admits that tribes and lobbyists may continue to enjoy a tenuous marriage of convenience.

“The bottom line is money talks, and if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s the route to go,” he concluded. “But I would hire somebody that has a solid reputation, somebody that’s got integrity and honesty and isn’t just out to screw the tribes.”

This report was edited by Larisa Alexandrovna. Muriel Kane contributed research to the report.

Article originally published Apr. 21, 2005.

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