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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Indian Country awaits outcome of lobbying probe
Tuesday, May 18, 2004

As Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) continues his investigation into $45 million in lobbying and other fees paid by tribes, some in Indian Country wonder where the high-profile probe might lead.

Few expect McCain, a critic of influence-peddling in Washington, D.C., to find anything particularly damaging. For several months, newspaper reports have disclosed how four tribes poured gaming and other funds into the pockets of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a close associate.

But tribal leaders and their advocates say the investigation poses an important question: Why should the federal government get involved in these kinds of tribal matters in the first place?

"I think it is a bit paternalistic," said University of Arizona professor Kevin Gover, a former tribal lobbyist, of the investigation.

Gover's tenure as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the last three years of the Clinton administration sparked numerous allegations of influence-peddling. Critics accused Gover and his aides of making decisions to help former clients and to further their careers once they left their government jobs.

But Gover, who continues to help tribes as a consultant, said his detractors have "nothing" to back up their claims that lobbyists are swaying the BIA. "There is nothing in that regard to demonstrate that these lobbyists are in control of the process," he said, "It just isn't happening."

At an Indian law conference last month, a top BIA official said McCain's probe is symbolic of political pressures surrounding the $16 billion Indian gaming industry and the recognition of new tribes. Aurene Martin, the BIA's second-in-command, predicted members of Congress might try to restrict how tribes use casino revenues.

"The investigation will look into the source of the funds and there will be questions asked about how this situation could have happened, that is, how such exorbitant fees could be charged to a tribe," she said. "They are going to start looking at the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and what it says about contracting."

Already, members of Congress have introduced bills they say will reform the situation. Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Connecticut) has a measure to close the "revolving door" that allows ex-government employees to lobby before their old bosses on behalf of tribes.

Martin said the BIA might be forced into reviewing tribal contracts with law firms, a practice that was dropped in the late 1990s when Congress amended Section 81 of U.S Code Title 25. Law firms often double as lobbying shops.

"Do you really want have the federal government picking the tribes' lawyer?" asked Gover, who said the BIA doesn't have the expertise to review attorney contracts. Gover nonetheless agreed that the high fees the four tribes paid were a "disgrace."

Federal officials are pushing the issue in their own ways. Phil Hogen, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates tribal casinos, has called for more powers to review the business dealings of tribes and their backers.

Many tribal leaders see these requests as unnecessary. In an editorial published in Indian Country Today this week, Jacob Coin, the executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, called NIGC's foray into internal tribal matters, such as enrollment, an "abuse of power."

McCain hasn't announced when he might hold a hearing on the lobbying controversy but one is expected sometime this summer. Last year, he raised the eyebrows of some Indian gaming leaders when he called for tribes to open their financial records to the public.

"You're headed for trouble if you hide behind not divulging ordinary information that other non-Indian gaming operations engage in on the basis of tribal sovereignty," he told the National Congress of American Indians in February 2003.

Relevant Links:
Sen. John McCain - http://mccain.senate.gov

Related Stories:
BIA's Anderson backed amid calls for resignation (05/10)
Critics take BIA to task over federal recognition (05/06)
Martin attacked for federal recognition decision (05/04)
BIA critical of main components of recognition bill (04/22)
BIA official warns of Congressional maneuvering (04/16)
McCain demands documents from lobbyist, PR exec (04/12)
McCain pushing Choctaw tribe to cooperate with probe (4/8)
Coushatta leaders used tribal money to pay lobbyists (4/8)
Coushatta Tribe paid $32M to lobbyist Jack Abramoff (4/6)
McCain calls for investigation into tribal spending (2/27)
Four tribes spent $45M on lobbying and PR firms (2/23)
Indian gaming agenda discussed at meeting (02/28)
McCain urges tribes not to hide behind sovereignty (02/26)

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