Abramoff Links to Tribal Casinos Brought Scrutiny

Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the Federal Justice Building in Miami

hide captionRepublican lobbyist Jack Abramoff arrives at the Federal Justice Building in Miami to plead guilty to two counts of fraud, Jan. 4, 2006.

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleads guilty in Miami to charges related to his purchase of a gambling boat fleet. But it's the enormous amount of money Abramoff received from Indian tribes with casino interests that made him a target of investigators and led to his guilty plea on separate charges in Washington.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Florida today Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to more charges of conspiracy and fraud. He admitted faking documents in buying a fleet of casino gambling ships. Yesterday in Washington the former lobbyist told a federal judge he was guilty of conspiring to defraud clients and bribe government officials. He also agreed to cooperate in what could turn out to be the biggest corruption scandal in Washington in decades.

SIEGEL: Among those implicated is former House Majority Leader Republican Tom DeLay of Texas. Abramoff funded his political influence business with vast sums of money from clients, most of it from newly wealthy Indian tribes with gambling casinos. NPR's John Ydstie has been covering this story and he joins us now.

John, let's talk about this money machine that Abramoff set in motion using the Indian tribes. How did it work?

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

Well, back in 2001 Jack Abramoff teamed up with Michael Scanlon, who is a former press secretary for Tom DeLay. Scanlon had just set up a public relations firm. Abramoff would go to the tribes and he would convince them that they needed representation in Washington to protect their tax-exempt status, things like that, and he had convinced them to hire Scanlon. Scanlon would bill the tribes exorbitant amounts of money and then kick back 50 percent of the profits to Abramoff. Those kickbacks totalled $20 million according to investigators and they're really at the heart of the fraud that Abramoff admitted to yesterday in court.

SIEGEL: Well, did the tribes get anything of value for the fees that they paid?

YDSTIE: Well, compared to the $80 million or so that they were billed, not much, but many of them did get some services. For instance, the Louisiana Coushattas wanted to keep a rival tribe from setting up a casino across the border in Texas and Abramoff and Scanlon did some behind-the-scenes work to help get a ban on tribal gaming in Texas and the casino was never opened. But this Texas gaming ban also set up one of the most brazen schemes--scams really perpetrated by these two. It forced another tribe, the Tiguas to close their casino in El Paso.

SIEGEL: And because the ban was statewide?

YDSTIE: Exactly.

SIEGEL: All the way across the state in El Paso.

YDSTIE: Right. And so Abramoff sees an opportunity. He flies to El Paso, shows up on the Tiguas' doorstep says, `It's a travesty that your casino was shut down' and he says, `I'll work for free to get my friends in Washington to reopen it.' Of course, Abramoff tells the Tiguas to hire Scanlon.

SIEGEL: He'll work for free but you've got to pay Scanlon.

YDSTIE: Right, and Scanlon bills him $4 million. Abramoff gets kicked back $2 million. Now Abramoff does go to Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who we've heard a lot about, and asks him to try to help fix this thing. And he does try, but the effort flops. Nevertheless, his political action committee is paid by the tribe, and Ney, for his part, denies any wrongdoing.

SIEGEL: Well, mentioning Ney brings up the question of Abramoff's friends in Congress and the most important among them, of course, was Tom DeLay, who was formerly the very powerful House majority leader. Is DeLay involved with Abramoff's tribal business in any way?

YDSTIE: Well, Abramoff cultivated a relationship with DeLay and then used it as a calling card with his clients, including Indians. Let's play a piece of tape from an interview that I did with Bernie Sprague, who was with the Saginaw Chippewas, a Michigan tribe, that paid them $14 million. When Sprague got elected to tribal council, he went to the chief and asked `Why are we spending so much money on these guys?'

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. BERNIE SPRAGUE (Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council): And the response was always he has Tom DeLay and he's top guy out there. And these guys don't mess around with little people, they go--you know, they use Tom DeLay and he knows this guy and he knows that guy. He has Tom DeLay. We never met Tom DeLay. I haven't met Tom DeLay to this day.

SIEGEL: That's what Mr. Sprague said. Is there any evidence that Tom DeLay ever did anything specifically for the Saginaws?

YDSTIE: No, but at Abramoff's direction they did pay $18,000 to DeLay's political action committee. The lawmaker who ended up helping him was Conrad Burns of Montana who got legislation amended for $3 million so that they got a school built. It came from a fund for needy tribes and the Saginaws are among the richest tribes in the country.

SIEGEL: And did Senator Burns recognize anything related to this?

YDSTIE: Well, he got $150,000 from Abramoff and his clients and, of course, he's under scrutiny now.

SIEGEL: Well, it doesn't leave Tom Delay off the hook entirely. There are other points of connection here.

YDSTIE: Right. DeLay traveled on elaborate trips with Abramoff. He also got more in contributions from Abramoff and his wife directly than any other lawmaker. And DeLay's wife was employed by a former DeLay aide Ed Buckam, who founded a nonprofit group to--called the US Family Network--and they got contributions from Abramoff.

SIEGEL: Thank you, John. NPR's John Ydstie.

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