WASHINGTON — In their first public comments on the lobbying scandal that has rocked Indian tribes across the country, tribal leaders are expressing "pain" and "hurt" as the investigation centered on lobbyist Jack Abramoff unfolds.
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At a Western Indian Gaming Conference in Palm Springs, Calif., this week, delegates from dozens of tribes have made public pronouncements about the scandal and privately, according to participants, have been working on a strategy to keep the doors of Congress from shutting on them.
Delegates say Washington lobbying efforts will continue despite the cloud the Abramoff affair has put over their heads.
Tribes fear doors will close
Nancy Conrad, a spokesperson for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a tribe with two casinos that gave $10 million to Abramoff over two years, says, "All in all, the tribes hurt. They don't want to see others hurt."
Conrad said in a telephone interview that tribal officials had only good intentions when they hired Abramoff to represent them in Washington. "We fear right now the doors of Congress are being closed on the tribes," she said.
Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente, gave an impassioned speech to the conference and offered apologies to his fellow delegates.
''It really pains me. It hurts me to know that the fallout from that [scandal] is affecting all of us in Indian Country, not just our tribe,'' said Milanovich. ''I apologize to each and every one of you and to all of your people for it happening, and I know that other tribes also regret that it took place.''
Legislative challenges ahead
The chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, Anthony Miranda, a member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, said in an opening statement that never in the modern history of Indian gaming have tribes faced as many legislative challenges as they face today.
"The same people who want to take away our rights are those who will use the disgraceful acts of lobbyist Jack Abramoff to advance their cause," Miranda said.
He scorned Abramoff's lobbying activities, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, this man violated the trust of members of Congress, Indian tribes, banks, major corporations, charitable organizations, a federal territory, his own law firm. Even the press, The New York Times reports, was a victimized client."
Miranda suggested that the tribes do not need the services of paid lobbyists to make their case in Washington. "Now, more than ever, it is vital, absolutely vital, that tribal leaders be the ones to walk the halls of Congress themselves and not send representatives," he said. "We must tell our story to the leaders of America."
The chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Ernie Stevens Jr. said Indian gambling opponents in Washington will try to ''use Indian country as a scapegoat'' in the wake of the corruption scandal. ''But I'll tell you, no tribal leader ever agreed to be lied to or cheated or misguided,'' he said during opening remarks at the conference.
Conrad said the Agua Caliente had concerns about the lobbying money from the start, but the tribal council wanted a stronger presence in Washington and voted to hire Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's firm.
Tribes say overbilled for little
Abramoff and associate Michael Scanlon, who plead guilty to conspiracy on Nov. 11, collected $66 million from six Indian tribes seeking influence in Washington. Those tribes now accuse Abramoff and Scanlon of overbilling and delivering little.
Discussion of what was to become a scandal began in 2004 at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which first heard about the tangled financial web between six Indian tribes and two prominent Washington insiders. Congressional investigators said then that Abramoff and Scanlon charged the tribes more than $66 million in less than four years for minimal work. Committee investigators said the two sold themselves to the tribes as influential Washington operatives whose experience and relationships would reap great rewards for Native Americans.
But what the hearing found, according to a list of subpoenaed documents presented, suggested that Abramoff and Scanlon manipulated the tribes, even their elections, to win contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.
In September 2004, Milanovich told the Senate committee that Abramoff and Scanlon played a secret role in helping elect tribal council members for the Agua Caliente in 2002, and that the members later voted, against his wishes, to pay the lobbyists about $10 million for consulting work.
Milanovich testified the tribe agreed to donate to a list of politicians, party fundraising groups and charities suggested by Scanlon and Abramoff, and contribute $300,000 in skyboxes in Washington sports stadiums.
Milanovich said the tribe ended its contract with Abramoff's lobbying firm in April 2004 and was trying to recoup some of the $10 million for the consulting work. He also said the tribe had hired a former Federal Election Commission chairman to determine if tribal laws were broken.
But there have been more problems for the tribe recently. The Agua Caliente are currently involved in a court battle in California, where they face $7.5 million in fines for allegedly failing to report numerous campaign contributions and required information about lobbying activities.
The Fair Political Practices Commission is suing the tribe. The tribe, the only one in California with two casinos, has become one of the state's biggest political contributors, doling out more than $13.6 million over the past five years, according to state officials.
Joel Seidman is an NBC News producer based in Washington.