Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is launching an investigation into why four American Indian tribes spent at least $45 million on lobbying and public relations in just three years for one of Washington’s most influential lobbyists and a former top staffer to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
McCain has gotten the go-ahead to launch his probe and ultimately hold a hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, casting a public spotlight on an otherwise mostly secretive contracting process the tribes engaged in with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon, DeLay’s former communications director.
“It’s disgraceful,” McCain, the No. 2 Republican on the Indian Affairs Committee, said of Sunday’s Washington Post report citing the $45 million figure.
McCain added that he would focus his examination on trying to determine “if this is improper behavior,” particularly since many citizens of tribal reservations are “still living on subsistence level.”
The chairman of the panel, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), gave McCain the green light to do whatever he wants with the issue.
“If Senator McCain wants a hearing on it, we’ll do one,” Campbell said.
McCain was not certain when he would hold the hearing, but said he first needed to “put some of my staff on the issue” to investigate the payments. “We obviously have to look at the whole situation,” he said.
DeLay this week said that any lobbyists using their connections to the Majority Leader to make money are acting improperly. “If anybody is trading on my name to get clients or make money, that is wrong and they should stop it,” DeLay told reporters Tuesday.
DeLay and Abramoff, a top lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig LLP, have been allies in the conservative movement for a decade.
Just a few weeks ago DeLay, Abramoff and a few other GOP lobbyists and strategists dined at Abramoff’s Signatures restaurant in a meeting designed to plot a course toward raising more campaign money for GOP candidates from K Street. Scanlon was DeLay’s communications director until 2000, playing a leading behind-the-scenes role in DeLay’s effort to impeach President Bill Clinton.
The Washington Post reported that Abramoff had raked in close to $15 million in federally reported lobbying fees from four tribes and Scanlon took in another $31 million from three of the same tribes, fees that were gleaned from internal tribal documents and local media reports in the tribes’ regions. A fourth tribe would not say how much it paid Scanlon.
McCain’s decision to launch hearings into the matter came a day after Rep. Frank Wolff (R-Va.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee controlling the Justice Department’s budget, asked the FBI and Justice to launch an investigation into the payments to Abramoff and Scanlon.
Abramoff declined comment, while Scanlon suggested he is not concerned about the review.
“Public relations and public affairs spending by Indian tribes is rapidly growing into a billion-dollar-per-year industry,” he said. “I look forward to sharing my experience in the field, both good and bad, and putting to rest some of the critical questions that have been raised by recent news reports.”
Meanwhile, Greenberg Traurig, a massive law firm with more than 1,100 attorneys worldwide, has launched its own review of Abramoff’s work.
Greenberg Traurig spokeswoman Jill Perry said Wednesday, “The Washington Post article contained information and quotes attributed to lobbying clients of our firm and as is our normal practice we will follow-up with our clients to directly determine their views and review our services with them.”
A source close to Greenberg added: “They can investigate away. [The firm] has done nothing illegal.”
One of the clients under scrutiny is the American International Center. The center, according to its own Web site, opened in 2001 in Rehoboth Beach, Del., as a think tank whose mission was to enhance the “empowerment for territories, commonwealths and sovereign nations in possession of and within the United States.”
The center’s goals dovetailed with the top clients of Abramoff at the time of its debut: U.S. territories such as the Northern Mariana Islands and Saipan, as well as the “sovereign nations” of tribes such as the Mississippi Choctaw, the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan and the Coushatta Indians of Louisiana.
As part of its revenue stream, the center took in $566,000 in donations from the Coushatta, according to an internal audit of the tribe that was provided last September to The Town Talk, a Louisiana-based paper. The center then hired Abramoff as a lobbyist, becoming one of his most lucrative clients by paying him almost $1.3 million through June 30, 2002.
According to a Roll Call review of the center’s records and reported lobbying data, the center has been defunct since mid-2002 yet continued paying Abramoff’s firm an additional $300,000 for a year after it shuttered.
The phone number listed on the center’s Web site is disconnected. The Post report said the center was located at a property owned by Scanlon, who, in addition to running a public relations and grassroots organizing firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies, has started a realty company in the Delaware beach community.
In the section labeled “activities” on the center’s Web site, there are none listed.
The Coushattas paid out $13.7 million to Scanlon’s firm and $2.4 million to Greenberg Traurig, according to the tribe’s audit.
According to the Coushattas’ audit, most of the $18 million that the tribe spent on lobbyists and lawyers over a one-year period in 2001 and 2002 came from accounts designed to pay for health care, education and other social services. The Town Talk reported last September that FBI officials and Louisiana State Police were meeting to hold discussions about the tribe. And the Post reported that the FBI has questioned members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe regarding its payments to Greenberg Traurig.
In addition to the $15 million four tribes paid to Abramoff for lobbying, three of the tribes — the Saginaw Chippewas, the Agua Caliente of California and the Coushattas — paid Scanlon $31.1 million in PR and grassroots fees, according to the Post.
Scanlon left DeLay and went to work for Abramoff, first at Preston, Gates & Ellis, then followed him to Greenberg Traurig before branching out on his own in 2002.
Based largely on his close ties to DeLay, Abramoff has become one of the most influential lobbyists in town. His move to Greenberg Traurig has vaulted that firm into the upper echelons of lobbying revenue, finishing fourth in 2003, according to Roll Call’s annual survey released Wednesday.
In 2000, the firm brought in $3.8 million worth of lobbying revenue, which jumped to $25.5 million last year, the sharpest three-year increase of any of the 25 biggest lobbying firms in town.
Brody Mullins and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.