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Former Abramoff client saves BIA from $3 million cut
Thursday, May 4, 2006

A decision by one of Jack Abramoff's former clients has saved tribes across the nation from one of the Bush administration's funding cuts.

In April, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan voted to return a $3 million federal appropriation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The money was secured through the lobbying efforts of Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to defrauding his tribal clients.

But what was a bad situation for one tribe has been turned into good fortune for Indian Country. The Saginaw Chippewa earmark will now be used to restore $3 million that the Bush administration took from the BIA budget to pay for fees awarded for the Cobell trust fund lawsuit.

"I commend the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe for returning funds and specifying that they be used to restore the funds," said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney for the Cobell case.

"This is yet another example of what Indian Country can do if we stand united," he added.

In letters to members of Congress, the tribe called on the BIA to use the earmark to patch up a hole created by Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department. Cason, a political appointee who was not subject to Senate confirmation, removed $2 million from a BIA account used to pay tribal attorney's fees and imposed a $1 million across-the-board cut on all BIA programs.

Tribes immediately protested the cut, saying they were being penalized for the federal government's mistakes. The Cobell fees were awarded because the Interior Department and the Treasury Department have been on the losing side of the lawsuit.

Cason defended his decision and claimed the Cobell fees, which totaled $7 million, were a surprise even though a ruling on the matter had been pending for over a year. But he reversed course on Monday and said he was "pleased" to inform tribal leaders that the $3 million cut was restored thanks to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.

The letter noted "concern" expressed by tribal leaders about his cut. He recently held a meeting with tribes in Denver, Colorado, to discuss the impact on the tribal attorney's fees account, money that is used to negotiate water rights and other types of settlements.

Cason also said the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee wrote letters "to express concern over these reductions." Leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee questioned the cut as well.

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe secured the earmark for a school construction project. The money was placed in the 2004 Interior appropriations bill because the BIA had determined the tribe didn't qualify for the program.

The earmark has led to scrutiny of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), the Interior Appropriations subcommittee chairman. He received campaign contributions from the tribe, and other Abramoff clients, around the same time he secured the $3 million for the tribe.

The tribe eventually decided not to go through with the school construction, leading to the decision to return the earmark to the BIA Tribal Demonstration Project account. Tribal leaders also fired Abramoff after they accused him and his partner, Michael Scanlon, who also pleaded guilty, of taking $14 million for services that weren't performed.

Jim Cason Letter II:
Dear Tribal Leader (May 1, 2006)

Saginaw Chippewa Letter:
Dear Congressional Appropriators (April 6, 2006)

Jim Cason Letter I:
Dear Tribal Leader (January 26, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Saginaw Chippewa Tribe - http://www.sagchip.org
Saginaw Chippewa Member Voices - http://www.sagchipvoices.org
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm

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