The Trouble with Tribal Money

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Commentator Jan Baran is a lawyer and served on the President's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform. He says the Jack Abramoff scandal highlights a problem with the way Indian tribes lobby in Washington.


Commentator Jan Baran is a lawyer who served on the President's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform under the first President Bush. He thinks the Jack Abramoff scandal highlights a problem with the way Indian tribes lobby in Washington.


Most people are sympathetic to Native Americans. Their ancestors were the original inhabitants of the New World and got a raw deal both from European settlers and the American government. But the tribes that hired Jack Abramoff rocketed into the 21st century with lots of money.

Indian tribes paid Jack Abramoff and a business associate over $80 million in four years for lobbying services. However, not much attention has been paid to where all the money came from and how Abramoff used some tribal money to peddle his influence. In short, most of the wealth I'm talking about originated from casino gambling. The money provided Abramoff a unique way to make campaign contributions.

You see, campaign contributions from tribes, unlike money from corporations or labor unions, are legal because of a major loophole. US campaign finance laws require, except for tribes, that all contributions to federal candidates originate from individuals. For example, you can make a voluntary donation to the candidate or party of your choice. You can also donate voluntarily to a political action committee or a PAC. That PAC, then, contributes to candidates. In each case, the source of the money is subject to public disclosure. But corporations and unions may not contribute. They are allowed to sponsor a PAC that collects money only from individuals.

Indian tribes, on the other hand, can make political contributions directly from their bank accounts, which are enlarged with gambling proceeds. This is a huge loophole through which Mr. Abramoff was able to drive a very large Brink's truck of campaign cash. Abramoff would direct his tribal clients to send checks to chosen candidates or committees. There was no need for the tribes to raise the money from tribal members. The checks were simply written on tribal accounts and sent to the campaigns. According to the Web site, Abramoff's tribal clients gave $3.5 million to candidates and committees during the time he represented them, about $1 million per year.

Jack Abramoff's guilty plea does not end the tribal campaign money loophole. Tribes have become big business and they should be treated under the law like big business. Sometimes tribes are referred to as sovereign nations or governments, but under the Constitution tribes are subject to federal regulation and there is no reason they shouldn't comply with campaign finance laws. Contributions from Indian tribes should be banned, just like contributions from corporations and unions. If Native Americans want to participate in funding campaigns, they should do so in the same way as everyone else, with their own personal funds and with public disclosure of the source. This will ensure that the next lobbyist hired by Indian tribes will not be able to shower politicians with easy money from the gaming tables like Jack Abramoff did.

BLOCK: Commentator Jan Baran is a lawyer and former general counsel of the Republican National Committee. He served on the first President Bush's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform.

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