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Tribes Hope for Post-Scandal Era

Three years after the outlines of the ongoing Jack Abramoff scandal were first bared, American Indian tribes that gave the now-disgraced superlobbyist millions of dollars to represent them are still paying a high price in Washington, D.C., a handful of lobbyists said in recent interviews.

Lobbyists who now work with tribes said that the dual taint of casino money and the Abramoff scandal have combined to make lawmakers wary of associating themselves publicly with American Indian tribes.

Heather Sibbison, head of the Indian practice at Patton Boggs, said tribes are still trying to shake the stigma.

“Since the advent of Indian gaming, Congress as a whole has been much more hesitant to act to help Indian tribes, and since Abramoff that dynamic has worsened,” she said. “Clearly in the last Congress the political backlash seemed to discourage federal decision-makers from making appropriate substantive decisions.”

Lobbyists said it has been harder to get Members to sign on to letters or introduce legislation on behalf of tribes due to lingering concerns about the reputation of American Indian lobbying.

“I think that all of Indian country was impacted negatively” by Abramoff, said one lobbyist who works for tribes but asked not to be named. “You know that because the opponents of some Indian priorities were giddy about the prospect of pushing through harmful legislation.”

But those opponents largely were unsuccessful in efforts such as treating Indian tribes as corporations under campaign finance laws and toughening restrictions on gaming by amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

And the tribes’ lobbyists were optimistic that in the Democratic-led Congress more attention would be paid to nongambling priorities such as health care and education.

They argued that the 2006 elections ushered out the scandal and that Democrats often are friendlier to American Indian tribes as their members tend to be Democratic voters.

“Politically, the scandal was a means to an end, to tie this around the Republicans’ head. The tribes were not going to be politically safe until that election was over,” said one lobbyist.

“I think this year is going to be an opportunity to play offense for the tribes,” the lobbyist added.

Rich Gold, a partner at Holland & Knight, said “issues like sovereignty and government-to-government relations are in a more favorable climate than they were under a Republican majority.”

With the diversification of tribal economies in areas such as agriculture, energy and real estate, tribes simply have more varied interests before Congress than preserving their rights to operate casinos.

“It really has become more like representing a state, with the typical diversity of interests of a state,” Gold said.

Mary Pavel, a partner at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, a firm that specializes in Indian law and lobbying, agreed. “The scope of issues they care about has changed somewhat,” she said, adding that things like Medicare Part D affect tribal health care reimbursements.

“It used to be that we could visit two committees, the Appropriations and the Indian committee,” Pavel said. “Now we have to go see Finance, Ways and Means, Interior … there are just more issues.”

Pavel said that the 110th Congress appears to offer opportunities for action on tribal health care and other issues that have been overshadowed by gaming for several years. House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) “want to do health care, trust resource issues, education … they don’t want to talk about gaming,” she added.

The Abramoff scandal “hasn’t affected how people treat me up on the Hill,” Pavel added. “I come in on the coattails of my client.”

Although they are spending less money overall on lobbying efforts, tribal clients are still wagering big on the Washington game, according to federal lobbying records.

In lieu of Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig, they have hired top Washington firms such as Sonosky, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Cassidy & Associates, Holland & Knight, Ietan Consulting and Barnes & Thornburg.

Sonosky is a good example of the steady growth of American Indian lobbying despite the Abramoff debacle, since they almost exclusively work with tribal clients.

In 2002, their Lobbying Disclosure Act reports tallied $120,000 in lobbying receipts from tribes and eight clients paying less than $10,000 in each half of the year. In 2006, the firm posted $560,000 in tribal lobbying receipts and more than a dozen clients conducting less than $10,000 in lobbying business each half.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the number of organizations lobbying on “Indian/Native American Affairs” rose from under 200 in 1998 to 426 in 2002, dropping back to 279 last year.

Individual tribes, however, are spending far less money than the millions of dollars that were paid to Abramoff at the height of his power in 2003. The actual amount of money paid to Abramoff by the tribes is even higher as much of it was funneled through associates and nonprofits and wasn’t publicly reported.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaws, for instance, paid Abramoff $1.7 million in 2003, according to lobbying records, but paid Barnes & Thornburg a fraction of that at $280,000 in 2006, and spent $120,000 with Capitol Resources.

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe shelled out $2.2 million in 2003 to Greenberg Traurig and spent just $80,000 on lobbying with Holland & Knight and $160,000 with Ietan Consulting in 2006.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians spent $1.08 million in 2003 on Abramoff’s lobbying services and $280,000 for Akin Gump to represent them in 2006.

Nancy Conrad, the press secretary for the California-based tribe, said that the tribe has been especially focused on its state-based legislative activities, such as renewing a gambling compact last summer with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

“I think that we continue to be interested and active in Washington, but there’s no real hot issue right now,” Conrad explained.

Although the Agua Caliente band has just 423 members, it has 2,400 people on staff and a variety of properties, including two casinos, two hotels, a golf resort and a protected habitat area. Thus, it has a variety of interests before the federal government.

“We always want to keep an eye on legislation coming around the pike,” Conrad explained. “We could be taken by surprise.”

“Obviously, there was a lot of disappointment and I think a lot of people were taken advantage of,” she said of the Abramoff scandal. “It wasn’t just tribes taken advantage of. It was just a sad chapter.”

Don Pongrace, chair of the tribal issues group at Akin Gump, said that while he does not doubt that some Members of Congress have shied from tribes in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, “The change in Washington the tribes may be feeling or that certain lobbyists may have conveyed is as much a reflection of the change in Washington generally towards lobbyists and the differences that occur in any period in political transition,” rather than a specific rejection of the tribes themselves.

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