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Abramoff Scandal
Choctaws spent $5.2 million on anti-gaming activist

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians eagerly poured millions into the pockets of conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed in hopes of stopping gaming proposals in the Gulf Coast, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee reported last week.

With the help of Jack Abramoff, the Choctaws backed anti-casino efforts in Mississippi and Alabama. The money was funneled through a lobbying firm, non-profit organizations and other groups in order to mask the fact that a successful gaming tribe was in bed with Reed, an avowed opponent of gaming.

"Ralph Reed did not want to be paid directly by a tribe with gaming interests," Nell Rogers, a non-Indian aide to Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin told the committee in an interview. "It was our understanding that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr. Reed's political concerns."

According to the committee's tally, the tribe paid Reed at least $1.3 million through 1999. The money was funneled through Preston Gates, Abramoff's employer at the time.

The funding situation changed that year, however. "For reasons unclear to the committee, in late 1999 the tribe discontinued paying Reed through Preston Gates," the report stated, prompting Abramoiff to turn to Grover Norquist, an old friend who ran the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.

Norquist was more than willing to help out -- provided that he was given a "fee" for helping to mask the tribe's involvement. He allowed ATR to be used as a "pass-through" for at least $1.2 million in Choctaw contributions that went to Reed's anti-gaming initiatives, according to the committee.

The effort enriched Norquist by at least $100,000, the report said. Of each of the four payments the Choctaws made, he kept $25,000 for his own purposes, a situation the tribe accepted in order to keep fighting gaming in the Gulf Coast.

But the setup changed in 2000, again over concerns that someone might find out the Choctaws were involved. "At some point, Rogers recalled that Norquist apparently began getting nervous about his role as a pass-through," the report recalled.

"Rogers thought that part of Norquist�s discomfort derived from press accounts reporting that ATR was one of the largest contributors to an organization that was fighting against the expansion of gaming," the report stated.

That's when Abramoff brought in a fake organization created by his partner Michael Scanlon. The tribe ended up donating about $2.7 million to the American International Center in order to fund Reed's anti-casino efforts, although it's not clear how much, if any, actually went to the Republican activist.

In total, the Choctaws spent about $5.2 million to fight gaming initiatives in Mississippi, home to Gulf Coast casinos, and Alabama, where the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is based. Despite the large sum, the tribe was happy with Reed's work, Rogers told the committee in an interview.

"The tribe has no complaints about the quality of work Reed undertook on its behalf," the report concluded.

The tribe is now hoping to expand its own gaming empire. With two casinos in operation on its reservation, the tribe has filed a land-into-trust application for another facility more than 200 miles away in Ocean Springs, a city on the Gulf Coast.

Choctaw Chief Martin says he won't move forward without local support. He asked officials in Jackson County to schedule a non-binding referendum in 2008 in preparation of negotiating a Class III compact with the state.

At one point, though, he sought to bypass local and state governments by opening a Class II facility on land that is already held in trust in Ocean Springs. Although he ended up withdrawing the request, the Interior Department told him the tribe would still have to go through a lengthy review process before using the land for gaming purposes.

Martin has since embarked on a public relations campaign in Mississippi to garner support for the state's first off-reservation casino. Although he acknowledges a fight with the Gulf Coast casino industry, the tribe is touting the benefits gaming might bring.

More quietly, Martin has engaged a low-key outreach in Indian Country. Earlier this year, he made a rare appearance at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) conference in Washington, D.C., an organization in which the Poarch Creeks are prominent.

Some Poarch Creeks saw his attendance as an attempt to smooth relations between the tribes. One of the beneficiaries of the Choctaw's million-dollar donations was Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R), who is now fighting the Poarch Creeks on several gaming issues.

Chief Martin spent millions "to get the governor of Alabama elected to keep gaming out of Alabama so it wouldn't hurt ... his market in Mississippi," another tribal leader told the Senate committee in an interview.

In April, Martin spoke at the University of Oklahoma Indian Symposium to tout his tribe's successes. In his speech, he downplayed his knowledge of Class II gaming, the staple of Oklahoma's $1.2 billion casino industry, and sidestepped questions about the Abramoff scandal.

Reed, meanwhile, is mounting a defensive campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia. He was the front-runner for the GOP nomination until his involvement in the Abramoff scandal broke last year. His poll numbers have dropped as some Republicans avow support for state Sen. Casey Cagle, who has made Abramoff a campaign issue.

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Abramoff Report:

Pre-2001 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | Undated | Finance

Misisssippi Choctaw/DOI Letters:
Chief Martin/Jim Cason Correspondence

Relevant Links:
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians -
Read About Reed -
Stop Ralph Reed -
Ralph Reed -
Century Strategies -