Native American media say that several Indian tribes are players, not victims, in the scandal involving lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and members of Congress.
By Pete Micek, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO – Jan 11, 2006 – American Indian media give little sympathy to tribes involved with Washington, D.C., lobbyists Michael Scanlon and Jack Abramoff, currently under investigation for buying influence in Congress on behalf of clients, including Indian gaming interests.
“There is some suggestion Jack Abramoff victimized unwary tribes and politicians,” says former Native American Times editor Louis Gray in a guest editorial in the Oklahoma-based newspaper, “but this is more a case of unbridled greed than people taking advantage of powerless tribes and corrupting innocent politicians.”
“It would be easy to play the victim card,” Gray writes, “but that would be avoiding the responsibility many tribes had in their unrelenting drive to protect and obtain more gaming opportunities.”
The weekly newspaper, distributed in Oklahoma and New Mexico, updates its Web site several times per day. Gray’s editorial, headlined, “Abramoff Scandal Is About Players, Not Victims,” says gaming created heretofore unknown wealth and jobs among poor Native Americans. “But at what price and when is it enough?” he asks. Gray says that Abramoff and his tribal clients share blame for mismanagement of funds.
Abramoff pled guilty Jan. 3 to charges of tax evasion, mail fraud and conspiracy. He will cooperate with authorities in an ongoing investigation and therefore receive a lighter prison sentence. More than a month earlier, his former partner Michael Scanlon admitted conspiring to defraud Indian tribes and corrupt public officials.
The two lobbyists stand accused of bilking six tribes out of more than $82 million between 2001 and 2004, reports Indian Country Today (ICT), an upstate New York-based newspaper owned by the Oneida Nation. The Washington, D.C., lobbyists kept two-thirds of the money, said Gale Courey Toensing, a reporter for the 25-year-old newspaper, in an article titled “Abramoff pleads guilty to federal charges.”
One tribe, the Coushatta of Louisiana, gave Scanlon “and related entities” more than $30 million, according to the article. Scanlon redirected nearly half, $11.5 million, to Abramoff, ICT reports.
Coushatta attorney Jimmy Faircloth claims the tribe is “outraged” at Abramoff and “very satisfied” with his legal situation, according to ICT. “The tribe believed Abramoff had the secret handshake to Washington,” Faircloth told ICT, “and they followed him down that path.”
Politicians bought into the lavish gifts and arrangements the lobbyists prepared for them. Representative Robert W. Ney, a Republican from Ohio, took a golf trip to Scotland with Abramoff and others, according to ICT. He placed two speeches into the Congressional Record on behalf of Abramoff’s efforts to take over the Sun Cruz Casino Lines.
Abramoff and another former partner, Adam Kidan, bought the casino fleet from a Miami businessman, who later turned up dead in a “gangland-type” slaying, ICT reports. Abramoff and Kidan were indicted in Florida on conspiracy and wire fraud charges in connection with that purchase, according to the newspaper.
The golf trip also connects House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to Abramoff, according to e-mails released during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation.
Politicians responded to the “Mother’s Milk,” or money and publicity, offered by Abramoff, Louis Gray says in the Native American Times editorial. Are they working for the public, Grey wonders, or for their own interests? “Their actions say they worked for men like Abramoff, who in turn worked for the highest bidder of his services.” Gray continues, “Tribes are not the innocent lambs in the forest they once were. Many of those in gaming have powerful people working for them and dispensing advice in important deliberations.”
From the tribes to the lobbyists to politicians, Gray says, no one said “No” to the powerful influence of money.
At least one tribe watches the scandal with a wary eye. The Navajo Nation, says Duane Beyal, editor of Navajo Times newspaper in Arizona, looks to build casinos. The tribe’s Washington, D.C., office does its own lobbying, he said, and rarely relies on outside consultants. Though untouched by the scandal, he says, “We’re watching it from a distance.”
“The part that is hard to believe,” says Victor Rocha of the gaming news Web site Pechanga.Net, “is the amount of money the tribes gave [the lobbyists].” They took advantage of and belittled the tribes, he said, while also defending some tribes and their “ancestral” territory from development. His Web site’s “Quote of the Day” on Friday, Jan. 6, delivered support from the National Indian Gaming Association for the prosecution of Abramoff and “other offenders like Mr. Scanlon, who knowingly conspired with him, to the full extent of the law.”
The Abramoff case worries editors of Indian Country Today, who write, “Just with that particular media-frenzied case, the image of Indians can transform from that of longstanding tribes progressively seeking justice in America, to one of A) newly-rich victim of Washington corruption or B) greedy manipulators attempting to buy favors from political power.” Though the labels might apply to the tribes caught in the scandal, they do not fit the rest of Indian country, editors said.
To avoid such characterizations, Native Americans must take control of their image presented to Americans.
“The magic wand,” says editor Jose Barreiro, “is not in millions of dollars for one guy to buy off people, but for supporting the culture from inside.”
Pete Micek (firstname.lastname@example.org) works for New America Media, a collaboration of ethnic media in the United States.