By Melanie Sloan “Casino Jack” Abramoff went to prison years ago but his playbook lives on. The swaggering influence peddler, armed with $40 million from tribal casino operators, embarked on a singular mission: to block other Indian communities from opening rival casinos. Predictably, scandal ensued and 21 Washington insiders, including Abramoff, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Today, the Indian Wars still rage in Washington, fueled by the largest lobbying contracts the city has to offer. The new tribal heavy is Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, which wants to stop another tribe from building a casino that would compete with its own gambling palace in suburban Phoenix. A second casino owner, the Salt River tribe, has joined forces with the Gila River band, spending $1.5 million on this lobbying quest.
For three years running, the Gila River nation has dangled the largest lobbying contract on K Street, spending $11 million funding an army of 36 lobbyists at Akin Gump. The firm is focused on HR 308, which seeks to stop the Tohono O’odham Nation from completing a casino project in the Phoenix suburbs.
This legislation feels like an old-school earmark – a narrowly structured gift for two wealthy casino operators. Giving little hint of its purpose and only 40 lines in length, it’s built to slip unnoticed into an unrelated bill. It also may prove very expensive for taxpayers. Echoing the Obama administration, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the price to the federal government as $1 billion or more when the Tohono inevitably sue over lost property rights.
Interestingly, HR 308 is pushed by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who claims private property rights are sacred and earmarks are evil. The tea party darling has made much over both, writing last year that property rights are an issue “upon which America was founded,” and telling Bloomberg in 2011, “I’m not an earmark guy.” So why does he continue flogging a bill that the Senate has torpedoed repeatedly?
Gosar explains that in 2002, when Arizona negotiated a compact with the state’s Indian tribes, the Tohono “implied” it wouldn’t build a casino in the Phoenix area. But this argument seems thin, given that nothing in the 2002 compact limits gambling. Moreover, Phoenix is already home to five casinos, some of which have been built or expanded since the compact was signed.
Perhaps Gosar has a more prosaic motivation. The Center for Responsive Politics reports he relies heavily on political donations from casino interests — $50,750 over the past four years.
It’s more puzzling that Sen. John McCain has added his voice to the mix. Several years ago he vowed not to take sides in the squabble. Nevertheless, this Congress, he stepped into the fight, introducing S 152, which is identical to Gosar’s legislation. Recently, McCain’s bill received only about five minutes’ debate before passing out of the Indian Affairs Committee on a party-line vote. Only Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat, spoke out against it, warning tribes could become wary of signing pacts knowing Congress might undo them later.
Shortly before McCain flipped on the issue, the Salt River tribe, owners of a mega-gambling resort in Phoenix, hired obscure Washington lobby shop FirstStrategic to push the anti-Tohono legislation. Notching less than $1 million in annual lobbying revenue and fielding a staff of six lobbyists, FirstStrategic derives about one-third of its revenue from the Salt River contract. The tiny influence shop has one asset, however, that the 90-person lobbying behemoth Akin Gump can’t match — a man named Wes Gullett.
Gullett lives in Phoenix, not Washington. But he has one good friend in Congress: McCain. According to The New York Times, Gullett has known McCain for more than 40 years. He helped with McCain’s 1992 senatorial and 2000 presidential campaigns. When McCain’s wife, Cindy, brought two Bangladeshi babies to Arizona for medical treatment in 1991, the McCains adopted one child and Wes and Deb Gullett adopted the other. And in 2006, the Times reported, when Gullett needed to find a gambling loophole for a California Indian tribe that retained him, McCain happily obliged.
In Washington, money helps to move an issue but friends often win it. As Casino Jack himself once observed, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
Melanie Sloan, partner with Triumph Strategy, previously served as the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which helped expose Abramoff’s web of corruption.
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