Business & Lobbying

Tribes rip Abramoff, ethics watchdogs

American Indian tribes are questioning the ethics of government watchdog groups that have partnered with Jack Abramoff since his release from prison. 

The criticism has turned the tables on watchdog officials, who are usually the ones pointing the finger on ethics controversies. 

Over the course of his career as a top Republican lobbyist in Washington, Abramoff and his partners defrauded his American Indian clients out of $80 million in lobbying fees. He called them “morons,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys,” according to emails made public during a Senate investigation. 

{mosads}After serving three and a half years in prison, Abramoff has launched a tour promoting his book. Profits from the book go toward repaying some of the $44 million in restitution he still owes to the tribes.

Abramoff has proposed ways to reform campaign-finance and lobbying laws, ideas that have been championed by watchdog groups in recent weeks. 

Tom Rodgers, an American Indian lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting who was responsible for blowing the whistle on Abramoff, argues that the convicted felon and ex-lobbyist doesn’t deserve a seat at the table for reform discussions. Rodgers and others say that Abramoff must first try to right the wrongs he committed against the tribes.

“It is extremely upsetting to the tribes that the good-government groups are trying to leverage his darkness and have not considered how Native Americans feel about them rehabilitating Jack,” said Rodgers in an interview. “It’s an incredible sense of apathy to the fact that the tribes were the first to [expose] Jack and yet now some of the good-governance groups are leveraging his darkness on our backs.”

Monday night at the National Press Club, Rodgers and American Indian tribal leaders sat in the first row during an event where Abramoff and watchdog groups Public Citizen and United Republic discussed money in politics.

Rodgers pressed Abramoff on whether he tried to buy reporters or bribe them. Abramoff acknowledged that he tried to get scholars at think tank organizations to write opinion articles for his clients and have them placed in large newspapers.

Abramoff has been hired as a senior fellow with United Republic, a group aimed at dismantling the corrupting influence of money in politics. 

United Republic spokesman Tom Fazzini said his group brought Abramoff on board because of his expertise on how the worlds of lobbying and politics coincide. 

“We obviously don’t condone anything he did in his previous life as a lobbyist, including his mistreatment of Native American tribes,” Fazzini said in an emailed statement. “We strive to build a broad-based movement of Americans working to end the corrupting influence of money in politics, and we welcome involvement from any and all groups willing to join in the fight.”

Public Citizen hosted Abramoff last month for a speaking event and has trumpeted his reform efforts in an attempt to draw attention to its cause. 

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, is calling for Abramoff to deliver a public apology to the American Indian tribes.

“We’re not partnered with him in any particular way, but we do hope he can drive forward a reform agenda where our political programs overlap,” Weissman said. “I don’t know what kind of communications Abramoff has had with the tribes that were affected, but absolutely, there should be a public apology.”

He added, “I think it’s completely reasonable for [American Indians] to raise these questions.”

Last December in the El Paso, Texas, Times, Abramoff apologized to the Tigua Tribe for cheating it out of $4.2 million, saying, “I’m horribly sorry for the things I did that were wrong, that I wish I could make it up to them, I wish I could some way give or do something to make it better.”

He made the comments to a reporter for the Times, but did not meet with the tribe or make contact with its members personally.

The apology has been deemed insufficient by some leaders in the American Indian community.

Abramoff again apologized in a statement to The Hill: “From the advent of the scandal which ended my lobbying career, I reached out to as many of my clients as possible to offer my profound apology for anything I did which was either illegal, wrong or offensive. I continue to express my heartfelt and sincere apology to my friends, family and clients — including my Indian tribal government clients — for anything I did that caused any harm to them.”

Jay St. Goddard, chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and a member of the Blackfoot Indians tribe, called Abramoff a “coyote,” or someone who smiles in a person’s face while lying to him or her. 

“The names he called us alone says what kind of man he is,” said St. Goddard. “Now he’s lobbying for forgiveness, but he’ll strike again. Coyotes always do.” 

St. Goddard objects strongly to what the good-government groups are doing: “These people who want to put him up on a pedestal should be ashamed of themselves.”

Rodgers noted that the media have embraced the narrative that Abramoff is resurrecting his reputation without asking tribes what they think. 

Last November on MSNBC, Abramoff told host Lawrence O’Donnell that he was ashamed of the names he called his former clients. 

“I sent, over the course of my career, some very stupid emails,” Abramoff said. “I was a very passionate and emotional player in what I was doing, and sometimes our emotions spilled over into jocular, and frankly stupid, emails. That’s one I regret. I’ve apologized for it. I apologize tonight for it. It was just a stupid move.”

Abramoff told The Hill, “Those emails did not represent my true feelings toward my clients and friends, and I am mortified I ever sent them.”

Rodgers said the issue is not entirely about Abramoff repaying his financial debts to the American Indian groups, though that will help bolster health and social services in the largely impoverished tribal communities. 

Instead, Rodgers said that Abramoff should undertake some sort of activity in which he sacrifices a part of himself, such as community service or a volunteer opportunity on an American Indian reservation.

A Republican member of Congress who requested anonymity said on Tuesday, “When you suck money out of tribal governments, you take things like healthcare and education scholarships away from the most disadvantaged population in the country. So yes, I think Abramoff should try and think of some sort of specific restitution to those tribes he represented and took money from.”

As part of his community service following his prison term, Abramoff in 2010 worked at a kosher pizzeria in Baltimore.

Abramoff said Wednesday that he has offered to be of any service possible to his former tribal clients. 

“After I have completed the court-imposed community service and
restitution, which I am now paying, I hope they will allow me to be of
service,” he said.

He called on Rodgers to redirect his focus: “As someone who spent years defending tribal sovereignty in Washington, I feel that the tribal interests Tom Rodgers represents would be better served if he were to focus his energy on the very real and too-persistent struggles that face the tribes. I also hope he will at some point join me in trying to clean up the lobbying system that he benefits handsomely from. Beating the dead horse that was once known as the lobbyist Jack Abramoff doesn’t solve anything.” 

— This article was updated at 1 p.m. Wednesday to include Abramoffs comments. Abramoff had not commented for this article when it was initially posted.

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