A non-profit organization controlled by lobbyist Jack Abramoff received a $50,000 contribution in July 2002 from an American Indian tribe in Texas that was fighting a tribal client of Abramoff’s over a gambling casino, according to federal tax records.
While not necessarily illegal, the financial links of rival tribes to a single lobbyist raises the question of whether Abramoff had a conflict of interest. The issue is now drawing scrutiny from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and other federal investigators.
In 2002, Abramoff, then working for the law firm Greenberg Traurig, helped one of his clients, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, battle the Alabama-Coushattas of Livingston, Texas, a rival tribe that had opened a small casino in eastern Texas.
The Louisiana Coushattas were an important and highly lucrative client for Greenberg Traurig, paying the Miami-based firm more than $2 million for its lobbying services during 2002 — a huge sum for a non-corporate lobbying client.
But in July of that year, the Alabama-Coushattas gave $50,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit organization controlled by Abramoff. The donation has caught the eye of investigators for the Indian Affairs Committee, which has been looking into the millions of dollars in fees collected by the controversial lobbyist from Indian tribes with gambling operations from 2001 to 2003.
The committee has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 29 to begin its public review of the case.
In interviews, several ethics experts suggested that Abramoff faced a clear conflict of interest in the matter, and added that Abramoff was ethically bound to inform the Louisiana Coushattas of the donation once it occurred. Abramoff never registered as a lobbyist for the Alabama-Coushattas, and it is unclear why the Texas tribe decided to make a $50,000 donation to an obscure nonprofit organization he ran.
The Alabama-Coushattas, a 1,000-member tribe with a reservation located some 90 miles northeast of Houston, had to close their casino in late July 2002, after a federal judge ruled their casino illegal. The ruling came just days after the payment to Abramoff’s nonprofit organization.
Abbe Lowell, Abramoff’s attorney, said in an e-mail that Abramoff “never represented or worked on behalf of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe.” Lowell declined to comment on any conflict of interest that Abramoff may have faced.
A spokeswoman for the Alabama-Coushattas also declined to comment on their donation to Abramoff’s nonprofit, including whether Abramoff solicited the donation from the tribe.
A spokeswoman for Greenberg Traurig did not return a call seeking comment Friday afternoon.
Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), were paid more than $45 million for lobbying and grassroots political work between 2001 and 2003. The Indian Affairs Committee, as well as a federal grand jury and a task force that includes officials from a number of federal law enforcement agencies, are looking into what the two did to earn such huge fees.
Of particular interest to investigators are the activities of a number of entities controlled by Abramoff, including the Capital Athletic Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. National Journal reported in June that the Louisiana Coushattas and another Indian tribe that Abramoff represented, the Mississippi Choctaws, each made $1 million contributions to the Capital Athletic Foundation in 2001 and 2002, with the Louisiana Coushattas’ gift coming first. A large portion of the $3.7 million that the foundation took in during those two years went to a Maryland boys school for Orthodox Jews established by Abramoff.
The Alabama-Coushattas’ casino opened in late November 2001, and proved to be a economic boon for the tribe, which is beset by widespread unemployment.
But the Louisiana Coushattas sensed a serious threat in the new Texas casino. The Louisiana Coushattas operate their own big casino in Kinder, La., and many of their customers hail from across the border in the Lone Star State.
It has been widely reported that the tribe, at Abramoff’s direction, hired Scanlon to help shut down the Texas casino. The Louisiana Coushattas then dumped huge sums into the grassroots campaign, estimated in the millions of dollars, and Abramoff also directed Scanlon to hire Ralph Reed, the conservative Christian grassroots expert, to help gin up further opposition among religious groups. John Cornyn (R), then the Texas attorney general and now a Senator, had been battling for years in court to prevent Indian tribes from opening new casinos in Texas, and Cornyn immediately challenged the right of the Alabama-Coushattas to open a casino.
Thanks to the grassroots campaign by Reed and Scanlon, new legislation to prohibit Indian gaming was introduced in Austin, and bills seeking to allow it were derailed. Cornyn eventually won his legal case, and the casino was shut down. It has not reopened, although the Alabama-Coushattas continue to press the Texas Legislature for permission to do so.
Neither Scanlon nor Reed ever received any funds from the Alabama Coushattas, say sources close to the case.