Harkin pays tribe for his use of skybox

Sen. Tom Harkin failed to account properly for two fundraisers he held in lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s skybox at Washington’s MCI Center in 2002 and 2003, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and a spokeswoman for the Iowa Democrat.

Sen. Tom Harkin failed to account properly for two fundraisers he held in lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s skybox at Washington’s MCI Center in 2002 and 2003, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and a spokeswoman for the Iowa Democrat.

Abramoff, the subject of multiple federal criminal probes for his dealings with Indian tribes and a Florida casino chain, routinely hosted political fundraisers in skyboxes at four sporting venues in the Washington area. Several members of Congress admitted earlier this year to having failed to disclose properly or pay for the use of the skyboxes.

FEC rules require that lawmakers and their fundraising committees pay for the use of such facilities or report the cost as in-kind donations in monthly or quarterly reports.

Harkin only recently discovered that the events had been improperly accounted for, said his spokeswoman, Allison Dobson.

“Over the last several months, given the current climate and in an abundance of caution, we went back and did an internal audit and found these two events,” Dobson said.

Harkin’s campaign committee and leadership political action committee reimbursed a former Abramoff client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, on Sept. 28 for use of the box, paying $1,800 for a campaign fundraiser held July 15, 2002, and $1,900 for an event in December 2003 for the leadership political action committee To Organize a Majority. An online schedule for MCI Center showed that the WNBA held its all-star game July 15, 2002.

Those two events were the only two revealed by the internal audit, Dobson said.

Harkin’s disclosure is the latest example that the expanding Abramoff scandal has the potential to ensnare a few Democrats the way it has many Republicans. Although Abramoff was a solidly Republican lobbyist with strong ties to conservative lawmakers, his staff at Greenberg Traurig included Democrats, many of whom worked with Democratic lawmakers on legislative issues and fundraisers.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) reported a $1,800 in-kind donation from the Choctaws for use of the same box in 2001. Dorgan has said that, despite having held an event in Abramoff’s skybox, he did not know the lobbyist.

Dorgan, who was among the lawmakers receiving the greatest amount of campaign contributions from Abramoff’s tribal clients, is now the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is leading an investigation into Abramoff’s questionable dealings with the tribe.

The Indian Affairs Committee’s next hearing on Abramoff, slated for Oct. 26, is expected to focus on the lobbyist’s dealings with the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana. A principal lobbyist working on the account with Abramoff was Stephanie Leger Short, a Democrat married to Toby Short, a legislative assistant in Dorgan’s personal office.

It was unclear at press time whether the Indian Affairs Committee would call Leger Short as a witness in the upcoming hearing. Leger Short, who once worked as an aide to former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), now heads up federal lobbying for the state of Louisiana.

Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Dorgan, said the relationship would not influence his handling of the investigation.

“It was a very short period of time she was at the firm, and he was on our staff. It was a negligible overlap,” Piatt said. “[Dorgan] has been a full partner with Senator [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] in this investigation. Both have been relentless and aggressive, and that’s not going to change.”

Harkin said through his spokeswoman that Abramoff was not present at either of his skybox fundraisers.

“He has no recollection of ever meeting Mr. Abramoff,” she said.

Although the name on the outside of the skybox said “Jack Abramoff,” a handful of Abramoff’s tribal clients, including the Choctaws and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, paid for the box over the years.

Harkin’s staff “did our own research and determined it was Choctaw” who should be reimbursed, Dobson said.

Several Greenberg Traurig lobbyists attended the Harkin events, Dobson said, although their names were not readily available.

Michael D. Smith, a lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig, represented the Sac and Fox tribe from Iowa and would likely have had significant contact with Harkin’s office. Smith’s sister, Pam, is Harkin’s legislative director.