Master of Jurisprudence in Indian Law - University of Tulsa College of Law
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Abramoff Scandal
Abramoff not in NIGA's camp but lobbyist came close


Ernie Stevens, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, made a definitive statement last week about his organization's lack of connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"I have been doing this for 10 years," Stevens said at the Western Indian Gaming Conference in Palm Springs. "Never once have I seen Jack Abramoff in our camp."

Stevens was correct in his assessment. Neither Abramoff nor any of his lobbying firms ever represented the nation's largest tribal casino organization, according to government records.

But NIGA is connected to Abramoff's Washington, D.C., web in a surprising number of ways. They don't exactly put Abramoff in NIGA's camp but they bring the pair pretty close.

One of Abramoff's former associates, David Safavian, lobbied on behalf of NIGA for two years during Abramoff's heyday. Safavian, an ex-White House official and ex-Congressional aide, has since been charged with lying to investigators about his dealings with Abramoff.

Safavian's other clients included the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Abramoff's first tribal client, and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Both tribes are active, prominent members of NIGA and their interests in Washington are often in sync with NIGA's.

In 2000, for example, Safavian and his Janus-Merritt Strategies firm lobbied for NIGA and the Viejas Band on the same issue -- amendments to the Interior Appropriations Act that were considered anti-Indian.

Over at his firm, Preston Gates, Abramoff was lobbying for the Mississippi Band on Interior appropriations that same year.

NIGA and Abramoff share another big link -- Grover Norquist, the conservative Republican who runs Americans for Tax Reform, a group that took millions from Abramoff's tribes. Janus-Merritt was co-founded by Norquist, although he did not take on any tribal clients, according to Senate records.

NIGA is connected to yet another prominent figure in Abramoff's web -- Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the deposed House majority leader who once called Abramoff a "dear friend." Susan Hirschmann, DeLay's former chief of staff, lobbied for NIGA as recently as 2004, the year the Abramoff scandal broke.

Hirschmann is one of several ex-Congressional aides of interest to investigators as they delve further into the Abramoff case, according to The Wall Street Journal. She is close to Ralph Reed, the conservative Christian activist whose political career in Georgia is on the line over his ties to Abramoff. Reed also took millions from Abramoff's tribes.

During these years, from 1999 to 2004, NIGA and Abramoff weren't a team but they frequently lobbied on the same issue: to prevent the taxation of tribal revenues. That made them strange bedfellows with DeLay, who once inserted into the Congressional record an Indian Country Today editorial that praised Choctaw Chief Philip Martin.

"Hiring quality lobbyists as their new wealth allowed, the Choctaw leader persuaded a good sector of Republicans to the righteousness of the Native nations sovereignty from taxation," the December 27, 2000, editorial stated.

At the conference last week, Stevens didn't talk about any these links. But he said opponents of Indian gaming will try to use the Abramoff scandal to discredit tribes.

"It's tougher now," Stevens told attendees. "People are going to try to use Indian Country as a scapegoat."

He also praised a panel of Indian lobbyists and attorneys whom he said were definitely a part of NIGA's camp. "We don't always agree, I don't think," he said. "But I think that's what makes us what we are. I think that's what makes the team in Washington what we are."

Throughout the Abramoff scandal, NIGA has largely stayed silent. The organization's first public statement came on June 21, 2005 -- the day before the Mississippi Choctaws went before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

NIGA's second statement came on January 4, 2006. That was the day after Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding tribes, attempting to bribe a member of Congress and evading federal taxes.

"It is indeed sad and very wrong that Mr. Abramoff violated the trust of so many," the statement read. "He violated the trust of not only Indian tribes, but also politicians, banks and major corporations, charitable organizations, a federal territory, his own law firm and the public."

White House Press Briefing:
Jack Abramoff Excerpts | Full Transcript | Video

Relevant Documents:
US v. Abramoff | Abramoff Plea Agreement | Department of Justice Press Conference | US v. Scanlon Scanlon Plea Deal | Attachment

Lobbying Reform Bills:
S.2128 | S.1312

November 17, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits

November 2, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

June 22, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits 1 | Exhibits 2 | Witness List / Testimony

November 17, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

September 29, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Association - http://www.indiangaming.org