Tribes still feel victimized by Abramoff long after scandal
Delores Jackson of Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, after Jack Abramoff's sentencing in Washington, D.C. September 4, 2008.
Delores Jackson, former council member for Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, after Jack Abramoff's sentencing in Washington, D.C.

Indian Country is still suffering from the effects of the Jack Abramoff scandal, more than four years after it became national news, leaders of two tribes said on Thursday.

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan spent millions of dollars on Abramoff's lobbying services. But even though the former Republican power-broker is serving time for his crimes, tribal leaders said they are the ones being treated like wrongdoers.

"Through no fault of our own, we have become political pariahs," said Coushatta Vice Chairman David Sickey.

At Abramoff's behest, the tribe once made $330,000 in campaign contributions on a single day in 2002. But Sickey said politicians no longer want to be associated with his people.

"It's become a sin to accept donations from the Coushatta Tribe," said Sickey, speaking on behalf of his brother, Chairman Kevin Sickey, who stayed home in Louisiana to attend to matters after Hurricane Gustav hit the reservation.

Bernie Sprague, a former Saginaw Chippewa sub-chief, described similar treatment. He said the tribe, whose leaders donated $1.2 million during a three-year period under Abramoff's influence, has been "shunned" from the political process.

In addition to seeing its campaign contributions refused, Sprague said the tribe has been asked not to attend legislative meetings and strategy sessions "because we were an Abramoff tribe." He noted that the tribe was repeatedly associated with the convicted lobbyist during a House debate on a controversial gaming bill this summer, long after the scandal surfaced.

"Thank you, Jack," said Sprague.

Sickey and Sprague addressed Judge Ellen S. Huvelle at Abramoff's sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., yesterday. But they weren't the only tribal people in the courtroom.

Delores Jackson, a former Saginaw Chippewa council member, defended Abramoff even though he admitted that he defrauded her tribe out of millions of dollars. Clad in a "Free Jack Abramoff" t-shirt, she told Huvelle that the tribe got exactly what it paid for, citing appropriations for an elders' center, a school and transportation projects.

"There is another side to the story being told," said Jackson, who was accompanied by a couple of tribal members who supported her. "Not all Native American clients think they were robbed or cheated by Jack Abramoff."

Breaking into tears, Abramoff also addressed the court and said he was "sorry, so sorry" for all the suffering he caused. But while he singled out his family and friends, he did not specifically discuss any of his former tribal clients.

"I come before you today as a broken man," said Abramoff, who has been serving time at a federal facility in Maryland since November 2006 after pleading guilty to bank fraud charges.

Attorney Abbe Lowell also became emotional in describing his client as a "modern day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Though he acknowledged the tribes as "victims," he disputed Sprague's and Sickey's characterization of Abramoff.

"They failed to point out that Jack did what they asked of him," said Lowell, who said Abramoff has apologized to his former tribal clients, after Sprague rejected that assertion earlier in the hearing.

"He apologized to everyone else," said Sprague. "It's like we don't matter to him."

Abramoff faced up to 11 years for pleading guilty to a conspiracy to defraud tribal clients, bribe a member of Congress and evade federal taxes. His attorneys and the Department of Justice sought a much lower sentence, of 39 months, noting his cooperation with an ongoing corruption investigation.

Huvelle acknowledged the cooperation but sentenced Abramoff to 48 months, citing a need to send a message to the public about corruption. She pointed out that Abramoff knowingly engaged in his behaviors over several years as one of the highest-paid lobbyists in Washington.

"The true victims here are the public," said Huvelle, who also ordered Abramoff to pay $23.1 million in restitution to his former tribal clients, though his lack of income appears to make payment impossible.

Abramoff will serve his sentence concurrently with the one he received on the bank fraud charges. He is due to be released in September 2012 but could get out earlier for good behavior.

Native delegates to the Democratic National Convention considered a resolution that blamed Abramoff and his associates for the "irrefutable harm to tribes and their ability to fully participate in political campaigns" but the effort was dropped before the convention ended late last month.

As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) led an investigation into Abramoff. "I've fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes," he said yesterday as he accepted his party's presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention.

Relevant Documents:
DOJ Press Release (September 4, 2008)

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