The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a high-profile hearing last week into the shady work of Republican-party lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is accused of fleecing Indian tribes. Everyone professed great hand-wringing sympathy for the tribes over how badly they had allegedly been treated. Oh, please. This is a trail of tears partly of their own making.
In one of the most famous cases, Abramoff lobbied on behalf of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which spent gobs of money to try to keep a tribal competitor from opening a casino that would eat into its own lucrative casino profits. The only principle at stake here was cash, cash, and more cash. And tribes now complain about Abramoff’s greed? “They were trying to protect their stash,” says the Rev. Tom Grey of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.
Abramoff has garnered extensive coverage because of his proximity to Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but the process by which tribes get casinos was hardly an example of clean government before Abramoff started getting rich off it. If you have obscenely well-heeled special interests — i.e., certain Indian tribes — dependent for their wealth on the obscure decisions of Washington bureaucrats, it would be shocking if corruption wasn’t the result.
Out of roughly 350 Indian tribes in the continental U.S., more than 250 host gambling operations, garnering $18.5 billion a year. They pour a portion of that cash into congressional contributions ($10 million in the last election cycle) and lobbying, all meant to protect and expand their moneymaking casinos. Abramoff and associate Michael Scanlon earned $32 million in three years from the Coushatta Tribe, which seems like a lot until you realize that the tribe of 837 people makes $300 million a year from its casino, according to Michael Crowley of The New Republic.
Tribes need federal recognition and their lands to be put in trust in order to open casinos. Getting these approvals from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs makes for some of Washington’s dirtiest dealing. Under the Clinton administration, the Interior Department was politicized, and Democrats milked tribes for contributions. Two-thirds of Indian congressional donations still go to Democrats, according to Crowley.
Gambling opponents hoped President Bush would clean up the BIA. Instead, GOP politicians and lobbyists now milk casino-hungry Indians in turn. Bush spoke out against gambling in the 2000 campaign, but has gone silent since. “You have a pattern of people close to Bush making money off the BIA,” says Grey. A few months ago, Bush’s head of the BIA, Dave Anderson, resigned over conflict-of-interest charges.
Reformers want a moratorium on BIA recognitions of new tribes, many of which are dubious fronts for gambling interests. No fewer than 200 tribes are now petitioning for recognition. These tribes would happily hire Abramoff if he were available. The General Accountability Office has warned that BIA decisions have less to do with the merits and “more to do with the resources that petitioners and third parties can marshal to develop a successful political strategy.”
Reformers want the BIA to put an end to “reservation shopping,” the practice of tribes getting property for casinos large distances from their tribal lands. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma have asked the Interior Department for 27 million acres in northeastern Colorado that is supposedly their honored tribal right — but have stipulated that they would be perfectly happy to settle for 500 acres near the Denver International Airport for a casino instead.
And reformers want to end the revolving door that has former BIA officials becoming representatives of casino-hungry tribes. In a notorious case, the Ione Band in California experienced what some members considered a kind of hostile takeover by former BIA officials and their relatives who are now in a position to profit handsomely if its proposed $100 million casino is built.
Don’t expect change at the BIA soon — too many people are getting too rich. Including the kind of greedy Indian tribes that found a natural partner in Jack Abramoff.