An arrangement involving two Indian tribes, the head of an anti-tax organization and a lobbyist now under criminal investigation – plus $50,000 – secured Indian leaders a private audience with President Bush.
Each of the players, including the president, had something to gain from the deal, carried out in 2001 and confirmed by tribal lawyers and documents showing the solicitation of money and the promise of a meeting with Bush.
The tribes were seeking to protect their casino gaming revenues from tougher labor regulations and to block changes in federal gaming laws that might interfere with their casinos. The anti-tax organization wanted sponsorship money for a political event, and the lobbyist acting as a go-between was charging his Indian clients millions of dollars for his services.
For Bush, participating in an event sponsored by the Americans for Tax Reform gave a hand to a pro-Republican group and its head, Grover Norquist, a longtime Bush ally and political consultant. Besides, lobbyist Jack Abramoff himself had raised more than $100,000 on behalf of Bush and had his own ties to Norquist.
“What this is, is the president helping out Americans for Tax Reform by agreeing to speak at their event,” said Larry Noble, the former chief lawyer for federal election enforcement who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics. “The quid pro quo is ATR helps out the president with support of his agenda at the same time ATR is able to sell it to lobbyists and others as something that needs to be underwritten.”
At the behest of Abramoff, two Indian tribes – the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and Mississippi Band of Choctaw – paid $25,000 each to Norquist’s group to underwrite a 2001 event that included a private meeting with Bush. Two other entities, which the group declined to identify, also helped underwrite the event.
“The exposure would be incredible and would be very helpful,” Abramoff wrote to one of the tribe’s attorneys in asking for the donation. “One of the things we need to do is get the leaders of the tribe (ideally the chief) in front of the president as much as possible.”
Indian tribes were uncertain how the Bush administration would treat Indian gaming since many Republicans historically had been anti-gaming.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether Abramoff and a lobbying partner overcharged Indian tribes millions of dollars for their work.
Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to discuss the 2001 White House meetings. In the past, Abramoff has denied wrongdoing and argued his clients got their money’s worth for his work.
Abramoff’s association with Norquist dates to their college years when they worked together in the College Republicans club. They both have ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and were instrumental in helping Republicans take over Congress in the 1990s.
Norquist’s group has been fighting a subpoena from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee demanding documents showing its relationship with Abramoff and the tribes. It confirmed that some tribal leaders along with state legislators attended the 2001 event and met briefly with Bush but declined to identify the donors who underwrote the event.
As the Senate and criminal investigations of Abramoff heated up earlier this year, Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to the Coushatta tribe clarifying that the White House meeting was not provided in return for its contributions.
The group’s letter said that state legislators and representatives of Indian tribes who pass resolutions backing Bush’s policies and the group’s position on issues were invited to an “Appreciation Event” where they can meet with House and Senate leaders and Bush.
Former President Clinton was heavily criticized by Republicans for rewarding big donors with invitations to special White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom. Those donors usually contributed directly to the party.
Abramoff enlisted the tribes as sponsors through e-mails from Norquist and forwarded by Abramoff, attorneys for the tribes said. Copies of e-mails sent to the Coushatta tribe were published in the Texas Observer, a political news magazine, and the tribes’ attorneys confirmed the information.
Lovelin Poncho, who is stepping down after 20 years as Coushatta tribal chairman, recalled meeting with Bush for about 15 minutes, his attorney said. An itinerary said the meeting was in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Poncho recalls Abramoff also attended, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition he not be named.
The White House has no record of the Coushattas or Abramoff at the May 9, 2001, meeting, spokeswoman Erin Healy said. Records show representatives from the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas and the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana met with Bush, along with 21 state legislators, Healy said.
Officials for the Kickapoo and Chitimacha tribes didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Bryant Rogers, an attorney for the Choctaws, said e-mails initially sent to the Choctaw tribe did not mention a White House meeting. Instead, Abramoff solicited the contribution as support for the ongoing anti-tax efforts of Americans for Tax Reform.
“The Choctaws contributed $25,000, viewing this as support for a general series of anti-tax meetings that (Americans for Tax Reform) had routinely sponsored. However, neither Chief Martin nor any other tribal representative was present at any of these meetings on May 9, and in particular didn’t go to the White House meeting,” Rogers said.
On the Net:
Documents at: http://wid.ap.org/documents/050607abramoff.pdf