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Native American Tribes Attempt to Recover After Being Defrauded of Tens of Millions by Abramoff

Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

Former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who served as chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that investigated the scandal, and Tigua tribal governor Arturo Senclair, of one of the Indian tribes defrauded by Abramoff, discuss the Native American tribes embroiled in the Abramoff scandal. They hired Abramoff to represent them in Washington regarding casino and gambling issues. As their lobbyist, Abramoff instructed the tribes to make political donations to certain politicians and recommended they hire former aide of Tom DeLay, Michael Scanlon, as their publicist. [includes rush transcript]


Yesterday Abramoff admitted to defrauding four Indian tribe clients out of millions of dollars. Those tribes include the Louisiana Coushatta, the Mississippi Choctaws, the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan and the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas. The tribes hired Abramoff to represent them in Washington regarding casino and gambling issues. As their lobbyist, Abramoff instructed the tribes to make political donations to certain politicians and recommended they hire a former aide of Tom DeLay named Michael Scanlon as their publicist. Scanlon charged hugely inflated rates. What Abramoff didn’t tell the tribes was that Scanlon was secretly his business partner and that in some cases Abramoff was also working for groups with competing policy goals.

In all, Abramoff and Scanlon received more than $66 million in fees. Some of this money was secretly diverted to a variety of Abramoff’s personal projects including an Orthodox Jewish academy and an Israeli sniper school. Some money also went to pay off a personal debt.

In 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon quietly worked with conservative religious activist Ralph Reed to persuade the state of Texas to shut down the Tigua tribe’s Standing Rock casino on the grounds that the casino violated Texas’ limited gambling laws. Abramoff then went to the Tiguas and promised to use his influence to reopen the casino, charging the tribe $4.2 million.

Meanwhile, Abramoff and Scanlon collected millions of dollars from a Louisiana tribe to oppose all gaming in the Texas Legislature. During the 2004 Senate Indian Affair Committee hearings, emails were made public in which Abramoff referred to tribal members as “trogdolytes” and “morons”. In one email released by the Senate committee, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, “I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw tribal counsel.” Former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2004 when it took up investigating Abramoff. He was also the first Native American Senator in more than 60 years. Campbell wrote in a statement at the time, “It is a story of greed run amuck. It is a story of two already powerful, wealthy men lining their own pockets with the hard-earned money of people whom they held in contempt and disregard.”

  • Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former Senator of Colorado and former chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
  • Arturo Senclair, tribal governor of the Tiguas of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas.


AMY GOODMAN: Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell joins us on the phone right now from Durango, the former senator. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Good morning, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. Your response to the plea bargain of Jack Abramoff?

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Well, I think that justice will be served. The investigation has been going on some time. I, along with Senator McCain, started the hearings when I was still in office, and we did the first two of them together, and then he's carried on with them. And even during that time the F.B.I. was doing their own investigation, so I think eventually the Justice Department will sort it all out.

I think the thing that bothers me the most is that Indian tribes have been pulled into this thing so that a lot of people lose track of the fact that they were victimized themselves. They were not partners to some kind of a crime that Abramoff was involved in. And what it has done is it created sort of a backlash in Congress, where now a lot of our members are running pell-mell away from Indian tribes, which denies them the right that everybody else has, which is to have a voice in their own future through the political process. That’s to me what’s really sad, but these two guys are bad guys. There's no question about it.

I never have met Mr. Abramoff and never got any money from him, never sat in any sky box, took any trips, did all of that stuff that some of my colleagues are accused of, but I am told by former staffers that – They reminded me that at one time did he try to come and see me when I was in office, when I was the chairman. And they advised me at that time not to meet with him, because they said he was a rather suspicious guy and pretty “slick,” as I remember the word that they used, and so I never would meet with him. But clearly, he did meet with a number of other colleagues on both sides of the aisles.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined, in addition to former U.S. senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of Colorado, by Arturo Senclair, the governor of the Tiguas of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe in El Paso, Texas. Can you explain what happened to the Tigua?

ARTURO SENCLAIR: Well, it was back in 2002. And that was the time that the federal judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Federal Judge Eisele, issued the court order for us to shut down Speaking Rock Casino here in El Paso, Texas. Abramoff came in shortly after that, about a month later. And he says, ‘Look guys, I've got the perfect solution. I'm going to go ahead and be able to pass legislation for you all to be re-opened up again.’

We did our checks on Abramoff, again, you know, through the internet, through our other sources, and we saw that he had done good work for the Mississippi Choctaw. And we didn't know at the time that he was working for the Louisiana Coushattas, who as former Senator Campbell was saying, that they opposed the competition on the east side of Texas in regards to gaming. So what happened was Abramoff came in, and he says, ‘I've got the perfect solution,’ again, unknown that he had used Ralph Reed to shut us down.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ralph Reed lobbied, bringing together religious leaders, saying that they were simply opposed to gambling.

ARTURO SENCLAIR: Right. What Ralph Reed did through Abramoff, Ralph Reed put the pressure on the -- back then, the former Attorney General John Cornyn, now senator. He put the pressure through the Christian Coalition to push the effort for the closure, that it was ill and evil and we needed to stop gaming in the state of Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, your response?

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Well, I agree with the chairman. You know, there had been a time or two -- there’s no question about it -- that some tribes have opposed others. They have huge investments in those casinos, and they worry about their own returns on their investments deteriorating if there's competition across the street, so to speak.

But from a broader picture, I think your listeners need to know that out of something like 557 recognized tribes in America, less than half have casinos. And out of the half that do have casinos, in my view, there's only about 10% that are what we would call super successful, making these huge dollars you hear, when the vast majority of Indian people are still dirt poor and struggling every day to try to get an education for their kids or to try to make ends meet from a financial standpoint.

I tried to have a rule when I was in office, though, because I am Indian myself. I thought the tribes should have the right to see me directly without an intermediary or through a lobbyist. So I, just through the staff, would always tell them to ask the chairman or ask the tribal council to come in themselves and tell me what I can do to help them and not send in a professional voice for themselves.

But he -- this thing -- when you talk about what is being talked about now, that we need some kind of broad reform in Congress, I’d remind people that we had “broad reform,” quote/unquote, after Watergate. Then we had “broad reform” a couple of years ago under McCain-Feingold. There always seems to be a loophole or a way, if people are not of good heart and good spirit, to circumvent the process. But I still believe the tribes were really more innocent victims than they were a party to anything that was done that was inappropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: At that hearing, Senator Nighthorse Campbell, you read the emails out loud. You read the reference to the Native American tribes, “troglodytes,” “morons.” These are the people, of course, that are paying these men.

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Yes. I might tell you, too, that -- you know, Mr. Abramoff is Jewish, and I've always had a very close feeling for Jewish people, because I know the history of what they've gone through in the world, through the Holocaust and so many other things. I remember asking him, in committee, under oath -- I said, “How could you, a person that is of Jewish background, who knows what your own people have gone through, how could you take advantage of another people who have gone through many of the same things?” I mean, there are some Indian people, you know, that call the days from Columbus up to now as “the 400-year holocaust.” I've heard that referred to it. They've done their share of suffering, and I couldn't believe that a person like Abramoff, whose ancestry is Jewish, could get involved in something like that. But unfortunately, he took the Fifth on me on every question I asked him. He just simply wouldn't answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator, in your statement as Chair of the Committee on Indian Affairs in 2004, in the oversight hearing on tribal lobbying matters, you said, “I must say the allegation that most concerns me is that Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon may have tried to manipulate the outcomes of tribal elections for their own personal profit.” You said, “Our investigation has found that in at least two instances Abramoff and Scanlin sought to profit by becoming involved in and attempting to manipulate tribal elections. They helped elect council members at no charge, but apparently with the understanding that they would be compensated later.”

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Yes. That's true. It's called election rigging, and it’s a federal offense. And that was my understanding from the research that we had done and our investigators had done, that they had got involved with at least two tribes and tried to rig the election by doing advertising for the candidates they wanted to win and generating some opposition to the ones that they wanted to lose, with a kind of a quid pro quo understanding that if the ones that they got elected won, they would get some kind of return favor, a lobbying favor. If any Indian people entered that agreement knowingly, then they should also be held accountable, I think, because nobody should affect a tribal election except tribal members, in my view.

AMY GOODMAN: Arturo Senclair and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, in 2002 alone, records show three Indian tribes donated $1.1 million to the Capital Athletic Foundation. That's Abramoff's foundation. But now Newsweek has learned investigators probing Abramoff's finances have found some of the money meant for inner city kids went, instead, to fight the Palestinian intifada. More than $140,000 of foundation funds were actually sent to the Israeli West Bank where they were used by a Jewish settler to mobilize against the Palestinian uprising. Among the expenditures, purchases of camouflage suits, sniper scopes, night vision binoculars, a thermal imager and other material described in foundation records as security equipment. The F.B.I. sources tell Newsweek it's now examining these payments as part of a larger investigation to determine if Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribe clients.

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: Well, he probably did. But, you know, there are already laws on the books that allow tribes to recover some of their losses. And, as I understand it, the Tiguas have already filed a lawsuit to try to recover some of the money that they gave him. I understand also, though, that he's now saying he's broke, that he did something with it, gave it away or some darn thing. So, who knows, they may never recover their losses, but they're certainly going to come out of this whole experience a heck of a lot wiser and be a lot more careful on the people that they ask to carry their voice to Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Arturo Senclair, can you explain what you have asked for, in terms of getting your money back for the Tiguas of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe?

ARTURO SENCLAIR: We're working with the Greenberg Traurig law firm. That's one of the agreements that we did establish. We did do a partial settlement with the law firm. We are seeking a civil remedy on this.

But let me just point out one other issue in regards to Abramoff, to what extent the greed came in. He approached us in mid-2003, and he says, ‘Look, guys, you all have some tribal members that are above 75 years of age, I'd like to be able to buy insurance policies on them.’ He would pay the premiums and he would be the beneficiary. That's unheard of in our culture. We just don't do that. But that's the extreme of the greed that he came to. We, as a council, told him, “That's unheard of. It's not going to be held.” But he still proposed it one more time just to see if he could get the insurance policies on our elders.

AMY GOODMAN: Arturo Senclair, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Governor of the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe in Texas, and former senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, thank you for joining us from Durango, former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

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