A $25,000 donation by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians appears to have paid the way for a former staffer to resigned Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to travel overseas with Jack Abramoff, according to documents released on Thursday.
Susan Hirschmann, DeLay's chief of staff from 1997 to 2002, filed travel disclosure forms for the "educational" trip to Great Britain that said it was sponsored by the National Center for
Public Policy and Research. She reported $27,626 in transportation, lodging and meal costs for
her and her husband.
The tally nearly corresponds to the $25,000 donation the Choctaws made to the National Center for Public Policy and Research, a non-profit group. At Abramoff's urging, the tribe wrote the check on May 25, 2000, just three days after Hirschmann and her husband departed Washington, according to the disclosure form.
DeLay, whose last day in office is today, also went on the overseas trip. It was organized by Abramoff, who sat on the National Center's board and pitched the 10-day journey as an exchange between conservative leaders in Great Britain and the United States.
But the itinerary included a side visit to an exclusive and expensive golf resort in Scotland.
The Choctaws, in testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Abramoff never told them the $25,000 donation helped pay for the
"The tribe has never authorized any payment for the purpose of sending any member of Congress on any golf trip anywhere. This includes the widely reported Scotland trip," said Nell Rogers, a non-Indian planner who works for Mississippi Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin, who didn't testify at the June 21, 2005, hearing.
It's not illegal for a tribe to finance travel for a member of Congress or a staffer. As sovereigns, tribes aren't subject to a ban on trips paid by lobbyists such as Abramoff.
It's not illegal for private groups to finance Congressional travel either. But the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service, said their
study of five years of such travel raises questions about ethical and lobbying practices in the nation's capitol.
"Privately funded trips are supposed to be educational or investigative in nature, not subsidized vacations," the Center for Public Integrity said.
The trip could pose legal problems for DeLay, who resigned rather than seek re-election due to his ties to Abramoff and his ongoing money-laundering case in Texas. One of DeLay's former staffers who joined Abramoff's lobbying firm has pleaded guilty to trading on the powerful Congressman's name in order to get more money out of tribal clients.
Hirschmann could also face questions. After she left DeLay's office, she joined a lobbying firm and represented the National Indian Gaming Association on a bill that was before her old boss.
At issue is whether Abramoff meant for the $25,000 donation to influence DeLay. Just two months after the trip, DeLay helped kill another bill that the Choctaws, NIGA and other tribes opposed.
And a few months later, DeLay inserted an Indian Country Today editorial into the Congressional Record that praised Choctaw Chief Phillip 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 newspaper's editors wrote
on December 27, 2000 [PDF
The Choctaws have defended their lobbying activities but have refused to disclose details about their motivations. At a conference in Oklahoma City this past April, Indianz.Com asked Chief Martin to explain some of the donations the tribe made to non-profit groups linked to Tom DeLay.
Martin declined to address the question or discuss his ties to Abramoff, whom he once publicly defended, and would only say the tribe has not committed any illegal acts. A Choctaw man from Alabama also confronted Martin about Abramoff and was removed by security at the University of Oklahoma Indian Symposium [Google
Susan Hirschmann Travel Disclosure Documents
(Center for Public Integrity)
Power Trips, An investigation into congressional travel -
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - http://www.choctaw.org