'Burned' by Abramoff, tribes take precautions

Several Indian tribes that said they were conned by once-powerful Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff are not shying away from hiring K Street to fight for their interests in Washington, but they assert that they are proceeding with caution and are following strict internal guidelines. Some tribes also have altered their approaches to hiring lobbying shops in the wake of the scandal.

At the same time, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which had been caught up in Abramoff and associate Michael Scanlon’s schemes, is now urging Congress not to target tribes in its effort to overhaul the nation’s lobbying laws.

“The tribes did nothing wrong,” said Larry Rosenthal of IETAN Consulting, one of the three lobbying shops working with the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan after the Abramoff scandal broke. “Tyco [another company caught up in the Abramoff scandal] will continue to lobby in Washington, and so will the Indian tribes.”

And the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe did not waste any time hiring another team of Washington lobbyists, but not before instituting several reforms, according to a member of the tribe’s legal department who asked not to be quoted by name.

On Sept. 30, 2004, the tribe adopted a new lobbying and public relations ordinance, which holds contracts with lobby and PR shops to a much more stringent review, the member said. The new policy requires the tribe to approve contracts in an open, public meeting of the tribal council. The new tribal law also stipulates that the contract occur for only a one-year term, with the possibility of renewal but only in a public forum of the tribal council.

In addition, the policy requires that any lobbying firms retained provide detailed invoices of their activities and costs associated with them on at least a monthly basis. The invoice must include “a reasonable description of the work and has to include all the expenses by the tribe,” the member said.

“It is working out,” the member said. “The council has used it a couple of times already, and it certainly puts those contracts in the public forum.”

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, which operates the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich., paid Abramoff $4.3 million over a two-year period starting in December 2001, according to federal lobbying disclosure records. Scanlon’s firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies, received about $ 9 million according to reports.

In addition to IETAN Consulting, the tribe hired Holland & Knight’s Aurene Martin, the former principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in October 2005. The Saginaw Chippewas also retained Chesapeake Enterprises, a firm run by Republican political strategist Scott Reed.

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which has complained of being “burned” by Abramoff, does not maintain any lobbyists in Washington. But hiring lobbyists is not something the tribe is ruling out. The tribe will choose its representation on an as-needed basis, said Jimmy Faircloth, the tribe’s general counsel.

“We would not exclude having a presence in Washington, but we will be cautious. There are a lot of issues that come out of Indian country that could benefit from a lobbying presence in Washington,” Faircloth told The Hill. “What the tribe can do [in the future] is interview [the firms], check references.”

He added that the Indian tribes engaged Abramoff for the “right reasons” because he came “highly recommended” by other Indian tribes.

“The Abramoff circumstance was a unique circumstance that came together at the right time for the wrong guy,” Faircloth said. “The tribes have ended up being sacrificial lambs for the betterment of the system.”

Faircloth has expressed concern that Washington will shrug off some of its responsibility regarding lobby reform and “think that it is an Indian problem and try to shape the reform to protect these poor Indians.”

“Indians will do just fine. We are not advocating any special legislation for the protection of the Indians,” he said, adding that Abramoff took advantage of half of Washington.

The tribe sued Abramoff, Scanlon and Greenberg Traurig, aiming to recoup the $32 million it paid to Scanlon’s PR firm under Abramoff’s scam. The suit is still pending.