Tribe continues political largesse

The scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has done little to dampen Indian gambling tribes’ appetite for political largesse.

At least one of the tribes that claims to have been victimized by Abramoff is planning another year of aggressive political giving with the help of its new lobbying team, according to an internal memo released by several tribe members opposed to the tribe’s current leadership.

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan plans to spend more than $300,000 on political donations in the 2006 fiscal year, according to the Sept. 27 memo, a sum somewhat less than in the tribe’s years with Abramoff — in which it made several large donations to questionable non profits — but still sufficient to wield substantial political influence.

In the memo, the tribe’s current lobbyists, Larry Rosenthal at lobbying firm Ietan Consulting and Aurene Martin of law firm Holland & Knight, suggest 74 contributions to federal candidate campaign committees, leadership political action committees and party committees that would benefit the tribe.

Although the memo is not unusual in Washington political circles, where nearly all lobbying clients make political donations, it does offer a window on how big political players determine where to invest their money.

Rosenthal and Martin based some proposed contributions on how helpful the targeted members of Congress could be to the tribe’s legislative goals or how helpful they’ve been in the past.

In suggesting a $5,000 contribution to Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, the lobbyists note that Taylor recently helped torpedo an attempt by Michigan Democratic Reps. Bart Stupak and John Dingell to add a measure to the interior appropriations bill that would have allowed several rival tribes to establish gambling operations in areas, including Romulus, Mich., that the Saginaw Chippewas claim as their ancestral land. The Saginaw Chippewas operate the Soaring Eagle resort in nearby Mount Pleasant, Mich., one of the most profitable Indian casinos in the country.

“He has proven a strong advocate for tribal programs, and we will need Chairman Taylor’s support in both adding positive provisions — and keeping anti-Indian riders off of the Interior Appropriations bill,” they wrote in the memo to the Saginaw Chippewa tribal council. “He was helpful on the Romulus issue.”

They also applaud Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) as having been helpful on the same issue. Knollenberg is an influential member of the Appropriations Committee.

Rosenthal and Martin suggest $2,000 contributions each to Knollenberg and Rogers.

In all, the contributions amount to $271,000 for federal candidates and committees and $50,000 for Michigan party committees. They include $25,000 to each of the four national party committees.

The memo was posted on a website (www.scitmembervoices.com) run by supporters of Maynard Kahgegab, a Saginaw Chippewa leader who opposes the current tribal council.

The tribe fired Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, at the end of 2003 and hired Ietan in early 2004, according to public disclosure reports. Martin, who works at the same firm as former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who oversaw the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation into Abramoff’s dealings with the Saginaw Chippewa and other tribes, was hired last month.

In a telephone interview, Rosenthal said the memo reflected positive steps being taken by the tribal council to keep watch over its political giving, noting that the council had eliminated questionable contributions and was looking for justification for each donation.

“This is a response to the accounting measures and reform measures that were passed by the tribal council so no more of these contributions would go forward without full council approval of where contributions were going,” he said.

According to tribal documents, the tribe spent $478,000 on political donations in 2002 and $501,000 in 2003. In 2004, after the tribe had dropped Abramoff and hired Rosenthal, the tribe spent $269,000, according to the memo.

Although less than in earlier years, the sum still puts the tribe among Capitol Hill’s heftier political contributors.

Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog group the Center for Responsive Politics, said that such a memo did not raise ethical questions but did show how strong the connection was between political contributions and legislative actions.

“When you see one of these memos, you see how close to a quid pro quo these things come,” Noble said. “There really is a connection in the mind of givers between their contributions and wanting something. … There is a fine line between campaign contributions and bribes.”

A representative of the tribe, Subchief Bernie Sprague, testified before the Indian Affairs Committee last fall that the tribe regretted the more than $1 million it spent on political giving with Abramoff.

The tribe gave “campaign contributions to people we never heard of, people we knew nothing about, organizations, different things of this nature,” Sprague said.

Those receiving the largest donations on the list are House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), with $7,000 contributions.

Kildee is co-chairman of the congressional Native American Caucus and was Rosenthal’s boss when Rosenthal worked for 11 years as a congressional aide.

Martin served as acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs after having worked for Campbell in the Senate.

Rosenthal and Martin wrote in the memo that the contributions reflected the tribe’s priorities and the division of Congress between the two parties.

“Republicans hold 53 percent of the seats in Congress. The proposed plan of FY 2006 political contributions below reflects this divide,” they wrote.

Until recently, the Saginaw Chippewa had retained another lobbyist, Scott Reed at Chesapeake Enterprises, but he principally handled the tribe’s cooperation with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Abramoff’s dealings with tribes and is no longer being retained by the tribe, a source close to the tribe said.