Jack Abramoff never worked for the Schaghticoke Indians, but his lobbying scandal echoes throughout the Connecticut tribe’s battle for federal recognition.
The tribe is arguing in federal court that lobbyists and Members of Congress used Abramoff-like political muscle and backroom deals to force the Interior Department to revoke the tribe’s federal recognition.
Their opponents argue that they simply are trying to get Interior to play by the rules and prevent the kind of meddling Abramoff engineered on behalf of his tribal clients.
And scattered throughout the case are people who played high-profile roles in the Abramoff case.
The Connecticut case revolves around an unprecedented decision by the Department of Interior to reverse its ruling granting federal recognition to the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.
Opponents of the tribe’s recognition — including the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation, which feared the new tribe would open another casino in the state — argued that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had improperly applied its own criteria for judging whether an American Indian group constitutes a sovereign tribe.
The initial decision in January 2004 gave great weight to the state’s long-standing recognition of the tribe, allowing that factor to make up for gaps in the tribe’s historical record. The bureau ultimately concluded the decision to recognize the tribe was in error and issued the reversal in December 2005.
But in a detailed brief filed in a federal court last month, the tribe argues that the BIA reversal was based not on the merits of the case, but on “undue influence” brought on BIA by Members of Congress, the lobbying firm of Barbour Griffith & Rogers and political appointees in the Bush administration.
There is no dispute that the Connecticut Congressional delegation, led by Rep. Christopher Shays (R) and then-Rep. Nancy Johnson (R), campaigned vigorously against the BIA recognition of the tribe.
In an interview last week, Shays said there was absolutely nothing wrong with the campaign, which included letters to Interior, meetings with key officials, hearings and legislative proposals to overhaul the tribal recognition process. The Members also requested an investigation into the Schaghticoke decision by the Department of Interior’s inspector general, which found no fault with the decision to recognize the tribe.
“My advocacy … was to make sure that the BIA was following the rules,” Shays said. The Members did not directly contact BIA, but “we wanted to make sure that people responsible for the BIA made sure that the rules were followed — if they followed the rules whatever the outcome we could accept it,” Shays said. Shays pointed out that the final ruling from BIA revoking tribal recognition acknowledged that the rules had not been properly applied in the first instance.
But the tribe believes the campaign crossed the line.
Then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton acknowledged in a deposition for the case that she met with Shays in her office shortly after the tribe was recognized by BIA, and Shays said “that he was not happy with the Schaghticoke recognition and … was concerned about the proliferation of casinos in Connecticut.”
A few weeks later, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) went further, Norton said. In a meeting on Capitol Hill, Wolf told her that “he would tell the president that he thought I ought to be fired,” a threat that Norton said she “did not lose any sleep over.”
Norton said she told the Members that the tribal recognition process is not supposed to have anything to do with gaming and that it is up to Congress to limit casinos if that is the desired outcome.
Later in the year, a group called Town Action to Save Kent — the west Connecticut town where the tribe is based — hired Barbour Griffith & Rogers to lobby against the tribal recognition. Firm President Loren Monroe, in a deposition for the case, said TASK had been referred to BGR by Johnson.
According to public records, the group paid BGR $220,000 from December 2004 to November 2005 to campaign against recognition of the Schaghticoke. Monroe’s testimony and BGR documents indicate that the firm intended to use the budding Abramoff scandal as an example of how BIA’s tribal recognition process had been corrupted, thereby raising doubts about the validity of the decision to recognize the Schaghticoke.
As part of that effort, BGR’s Bradley Blakeman — a former White House staffer who now heads a new conservative political group Freedom’s Watch — wrote a Feb. 3, 2005, memo to Karl Rove aides Barry Jackson and Susan Ralston (who previously had worked for Abramoff) to emphasize the need for “wide ranging reform” at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Blakeman’s memo explained Kent’s concern over the Schaghticoke recognition but emphasized “we do not seek nor ask for any intervention of the appeals process.”
In May 2005, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose Indian Affairs Committee was in the middle of investigating Abramoff’s multimillion-dollar tribal lobbying deals, held a hearing on BIA reform, which ended up mostly featuring members of the Connecticut Congressional delegation railing against the Schaghticoke decision. With the head of the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement in attendance, Shays called the Schaghticoke acknowledgment decision an “illegal action” and Johnson testified that it was an “erroneous and unlawful decision.”
After the hearing, BGR lobbyist Brant Imperatore exchanged e-mails with Pablo Carrillo, who was McCain’s lead Abramoff investigator. “Good hearing this morning,” Imperatore wrote. Carrillo replied “I thought so too. Your clients should be really happy with it … your client’s side definitely got a good hearing record.” Imperatore wrote back, “Thanks for all your help.”
John Tahsuda, a former Indian Affairs staffer who organized the hearing for McCain, said it “was intended to be a broad hearing about the tribal recognition process,” which had long been one of McCain’s priorities. That the hearing ultimately seemed to be more about Schaghticoke than the larger issue of tribal recognition “was kind of unfortunate,” Tahsuda said.
Tahsuda said Carrillo had nothing to do with the scheduling of the hearing or the content, and that, to his recollection, Carrillo’s only connection to the process was that at some point he mentioned his personal friendship with one of the BGR lobbyists. Carrillo and Imperatore apparently were law school classmates.
Tahsuda said the committee staff had met with BGR lobbyists at some point around that time, but “I had no clue that they were that heavily involved in trying to orchestrate something at BIA in an eerily similar fashion to Abramoff.”
Elliot Berke, BGR’s general counsel, said in a statement to Roll Call: “BGR, along with the entire bipartisan Connecticut Congressional delegation, advocated for the law to be followed in a transparent fashion. Any comparison of BGR’s work, which was legal and proper, to Jack Abramoff’s behavior, which was criminal and unethical, is patently false and irresponsible.”
The Schaghticoke case also features a cameo appearance by former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, who now is serving a 10-month prison sentence for lying to the Indian Affairs Committee about the extent of his relationship with Abramoff.
According to Department of Interior documents, in February 2004 Griles — who at the time had little to do with tribal issues — asked to be briefed on the Schaghticoke matter. A sentencing memorandum prepared by the Justice Department in Griles’ criminal case alleges that he had dined with Abramoff and another Greenberg Traurig official in January to discuss the possibility of leaving Interior and coming to work for the lobbying firm.
Abramoff was not involved with the Schaghticoke, but his firm was representing a Massachusetts tribe seeking federal recognition. Before expressing an interest in Schaghticoke, Griles called off employment talks with Abramoff.
Stanley Brand, Griles’ attorney, said that the Justice Department had investigated his client thoroughly and there is no indication that Griles’ interest in Schaghticoke was in any way improper.
Blakeman told Roll Call that nothing about the BGR representation was improper. Through the efforts of BGR, the Congressional delegation and the citizens of Kent, “There was sunshine put on a decision that should have not been made in the first place,” Blakeman said. “[The Schaghticoke] were not qualified under the seven criteria for recognizing a tribe.
“BGR did nothing improper whatsoever at any time,” Blakeman said. “What we did was we helped a coalition of concerned citizens of Kent who came together and did exactly what our government required them to do.”
Shays echoed this sentiment, arguing that by recognizing the tribe, BIA was “going to bypass the process and ignore the law and I am not going to sit still for a minute for that.”
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky sees it differently. “There are specific rules that govern the recognition process. People of wealth and public office holders don’t have the right to ignore the rules while they exercise their right to make their views known. Our opponents’ beneath-the-radar, under-the-table efforts went far outside the established rules and ultimately overturned our recognition,” he said.