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Indian Affairs Begins Next Round on Abramoff

While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he expects today’s hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee to focus on former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s relationship with the Mississippi Choctaw tribe, it will be difficult for McCain and other Senators on the panel to avoid touching on other controversial topics, including the ethics problems faced by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Abramoff’s business dealings with two stars of the conservative political galaxy, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, will be the main topic of the session. Abramoff routed hundreds of thousands of dollars in Mississippi Choctaw contributions through organizations controlled by the two activists, and both, in turn, took actions that benefited Abramoff’s tribal clients. Reed and Norquist have denied any wrongdoing, while Abramoff is being investigated by the Justice Department and Indian Affairs Committee for the tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees and payments he received from a half-dozen tribes between 2001 and 2004. Three Mississippi Choctaw officials will appear before the Indian Affairs panel today.

Another one of the witnesses scheduled to testify is Shawn Vassal, a former aide to Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who himself has attracted scrutiny over his ties to Abramoff.

Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, is also on the witness list. Her organization paid for overseas trips by DeLay, his wife and top aides to Moscow and the United Kingdom, junkets that are pivotal to the anticipated ethics probe of the powerful Texas Republican. The Mississippi Choctaws steered more than $1 million to the group at Abramoff’s request.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that officials at Preston Gates and Ellis, one of Abramoff’s former employers, had received permission in 1996 from two House ethics committee staffers for Abramoff to pick up some of the costs of lawmakers’ trips provided he was then reimbursed by the clients he was representing.

Asked about The New York Times story during his weekly press briefing, DeLay made clear that he had read it and that it provided further evidence that his past trips had not been improper.

“We adhered to the House rules,” DeLay said. “We went on trips paid for by legitimate organizations.”

DeLay added that the confusion over the travel rules showed that “the process is broken” and that he hoped “the process can be fixed so Members can carry out their duties.”

In an interview on Tuesday, McCain said he has gone out of his way to indicate to his Capitol Hill colleagues, both on and off the committee, that his probe of Abramoff has been solely about the flow of money from tribes and where it went, and not an attempt at exposing any ethical improprieties by Members of Congress.

But he added that members of Indian Affairs Committee would most likely be allowed to ask any questions they wanted. “I have no indication that it won’t be about the Indians,” McCain said of the expected questions.

Reed, through two firms he owns, received more than $4 million from both Abramoff and organizations controlled by Michael Scanlon, Abramoff’s business partner, to help fund anti-gambling campaigns in Texas, Alabama and other states. These campaigns benefitted Abramoff’s tribal clients, all of whom have casino operations, by helping prevent rivals, including other tribes, from getting into the lucrative gambling business.

In 1999, Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist’s organization, received at least $1.1 million from the Mississippi Choctaws, and then funneled the money to the Alabama Christian Coalition and another anti-gambling organization, Citizens Against Legalized Lotteries, according to an interview that Norquist gave to The Boston Globe. Some of those funds were then steered to Reed’s firms involved in anti-gambling efforts in Alabama. The Mississippi Choctaws feared expanded gambling in Alabama would damage their casino business.

Reed also received money from one of Abramoff’s tribal clients in Louisiana; those funds were later used to help shut down three American Indian casinos in Texas. Again, Abramoff’s client in Louisiana, the Louisiana Coushattas, feared that casinos in the Lone Star State would siphon off business, and Reed was used as a liaison with Christian groups opposed to the spread of gambling into Texas.

Other witnesses at today’s hearing include Vassal and Kevin Ring, two of Abramoff’s former employees at Greenberg Traurig who were deeply involved in the affairs of the one-time lobbying superstar.

Vassal worked for both Abramoff and Burns, who was the recipient of more than $130,000 in contributions to his campaign and PAC from Abramoff, his business associates, and Native American tribes he lobbied for. Burns, from his post on the Appropriations Committee, helped oversee the drafting of an Interior spending bills that included several provisions benefitting Abramoff’s tribal clients.

Ring, now with the firm Barnes and Thornburg, still represents the Mississippi Choctaws as a lobbyist. Ring was paid more than $100,000 by Scanlon while he worked for Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff’s former lobbying firm. Ring left Greenberg Traurig after those payments became public.

Three witnesses have direct ties to Scanlon — one worked for his public relations firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies, which was a conduit for much of the funds routed to Reed, while two others were employed by American International Center, a non-profit organization controlled by Scanlon that actually retained Abramoff as a lobbyist, paying him more than $1 million in the process.

A final witness, Gail Halpern, was a former tax preparer and adviser for Abramoff. Ben Pershing and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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