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Greenberg Traurig in Talks With Mich. Tribe

Greenberg Traurig, the law firm that employed embattled former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan have begun negotiations that could lead to the firm paying the tribe millions of dollars in exchange for being allowed to represent the Saginaw Chippewas in any legal claims against Abramoff or public relations consultant Michael Scanlon.

Greenberg Traurig has offered to reimburse the Saginaw Chippewas at least $9 million, according to Bernie Sprague, the tribe’s second highest-ranking official, although the talks are not expected to be completed until the summer.

Sprague said the two sides want to keep negotiations confidential but acknowledged that a likely part of any final deal would be a provision allowing Greenberg Traurig to represent the tribe if it takes legal action against Abramoff or Scanlon. “That was discussed, but not agreed upon,” Sprague said.

Sprague also declined to specify how much the tribe would receive from Greenberg Traurig, but indicated the figure discussed exceeds $9 million. “It’s more,” said Sprague.

Greenberg Traurig reached a similar agreement with Tigua tribe of El Paso, Texas, in January. While the financial terms of that deal were not publicly disclosed, Greenberg Traurig and the tribe agreed that the Miami-based law firm would have authority to pursue claims on the Tiguas’ behalf against Abramoff and Scanlon, according to The Washington Post.

Federal and Senate investigators are looking into dealings Abramoff and Scanlon had with the Saginaw Chippewas, Tiguas and several other tribes. The two men were paid more than $82 million for lobbying and public relations work in a period covering 2001 to 2003. One tribe, the Coushattas of Louisiana, has sued Abramoff, Scanlon and Greenberg Traurig for $32 million, alleging fraud and negligence.

Abramoff was paid $4.3 million over a 24-month period starting in December 2001 to lobby for the Saginaw Chippewas, according to federal lobbying disclosure records, with an additional $9 million-plus going to Scanlon’s firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies. The tribe wanted help defeating federal legislation that would have allowed rival tribes to open casinos in the Wolverine State.

The Saginaw Chippewas operate the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., located in the central Lower Peninsula. It is the largest casino in the Midwest, and rakes in more than $400 million annually.

In testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Sept. 29, Sprague claimed that “a small group of Washington, D.C., lobbyists” helped a slate of eight candidates win a tribal council election in the fall of 2001, after which the new council members signed hefty lobbying and grass-roots political consulting contracts with Abramoff and Scanlon. Sprague testified that he repeatedly complained about the contracts with Abramoff and Scanlon, and was once kicked off the tribal council for his outspokenness.

At that September hearing, Sprague criticized Scanlon’s firm for developing a database of Michigan voters for which it billed the tribe $4.5 million. Sprague said that the Saginaw Chippewas later found out they could purchase the same database for less than $75,000. “To this day, we do not know where this money went,” said Sprague.

According to Sprague, following the election of a new tribal council in November 2003, the Saginaw Chippewa leadership confronted Abramoff and asked him if he had a “financial or business relationship with Mr. Scanlon. He told our Council he had no relationship with Mr. Scanlon. We now know that was not true.” The Indian Affairs Committee has uncovered evidence that Scanlon paid Abramoff at least $10 million in “referral fees” over a three-year period.

Jill Perry, a spokeswoman for Greenberg Traurig, declined to discuss the firm’s negotiations with the Saginaw Chippewas, and instead noted that the firm cut its ties with Abramoff more than one year ago.

“Greenberg Traurig accepted Jack Abramoff’s resignation from the firm, effective March 2, 2004, after Mr. Abramoff disclosed to the firm personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable to the firm and antithetical to the way we do business,” said Perry in her statement.

“In addition, conduct and comments by Mr. Abramoff which have come to light since he left Greenberg Traurig are contrary to our firm’s values and culture. We are conducting a comprehensive internal investigation of these matters and are cooperating with all government investigations.”

Greenberg Traurig has hired one of the top white-collar criminal lawyers in Washington, D.C., Henry Schuelke III, to conduct the internal investigation. The firm also retained the firm Williams and Connolly to deal with all external probes.

Abramoff’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne and Parke, declined to comment for this story, according to his spokesman.

Scanlon, for his part, has personal statements from a number of former Saginaw Chippewa officials, including Maynard Kahgegab, the ex-tribal chief, praising his work on behalf of the Saginaw Chippewas. Scanlon’s lawyer, Stephen Braga of Baker Botts LLP, said those releases will make it difficult for the Saginaw Chippewas or Greenberg Traurig to pursue litigation against Scanlon or his firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies.

“As a result of those statements, it would be exceedingly difficult for the current leaders of this tribe — who had no role in supervising CCS’ work — to prevail on any litigation claim relating to any alleged dissatisfaction with CCS’ work,” Braga said in an e-mail Friday. “That same difficulty will follow any assignment of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe’s potential claims against CCS to Greenberg Traurig, against whom CCS would have additional claims and defenses as well if litigation between them ever resulted, which is far from certain.”

The Saginaw Chippewas have also played a prominent role in another controversy involving Abramoff and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). Roll Call and The Washington Post reported last month that Abramoff steered more than $130,000 in campaign contributions to political committees controlled by Burns.

According to the Post, in late 2003, Burns helped procure a $3 million federal grant for a Saginaw Chippewa school. As one of the wealthiest Indian tribes in the nation, the Saginaw Chippewas were not eligible for the federal aid until Burns intervened. The Montana Republican has asserted that he only acted to help the Saginaw Chippewas because of a request from Michigan’s two Democratic Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, for help.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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