Tigua Indians Learn Tough Lesson From Abramoff
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris. The Tigua Indians of West Texas have fallen on hard times. And they lay part of the blame on disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The tiny Tigua Tribe paid Abramoff's business partners millions to get Congress to reopen their shuttered gambling casino. The lobbying effort failed, Abramoff laughed at them behind their backs, and Tiguas learned a painful lesson. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT: Once upon a time the Tiguas had a casino. A very rich casino. In 2000 it brought in $65 million dollars. That for a tribe with only 1,300 members. Jacob Ladesma(ph) is former manager of Speaking Rock Casino, which is now an entertainment center.
JACOB LADESMA: There was so much life in here. You're talking about over 1,000 slot machines we had here, you know. Bingo going on, live bands, live entertainment. All the table games that you can imagine, you know. There was never a dull moment.
BURNETT: During the casino's heyday from 1993 to 2002 it drew customers from Texas, New Mexico and Northern Mexico. Gambling profits fueled a spending binge. The tribe built a luxurious recreation center, bought a cattle ranch and opened a chain of convenience stores. There were subsidized utilities, college scholarships and annual payments of up to $15 thousand dollars to each tribal member.
LADESMA: Every member of the tribe who wanted a job had a job, and they were good jobs. Everything was going so good. So much opportunity.
BURNETT: It was a story of rags to riches, says tribal attorney Tom Diamond. He remembers 40 years ago when he first approached the Tigua Cozikey(ph), or Chief.
TOM DIAMOND: At that time, the Cozikey, when I got him to sign the first request for services from the United States, I had to go to the cotton field where he was picking cotton and get him to put his X on the paper. Now that's the kind of conditions we were in then. The Cozikey and the governor aren't picking cotton today. But what scares me is that we could go back to that situation.
BURNETT: The party ended in 2002 when the state of Texas declared the casino illegal and shut it down. That's when the Tigua's lesson in the cynical game of Washington power politics began. In the early 2000s, Jack Abramoff had a reputation as the super lobbyist for Indian gaming. The Tiguas wanted their casino back so they paid him and former business partner Michael Scanlon $4.2 million dollars to stealthily persuade members of congress to slip language into an unrelated bill that would remove restrictions on Tigua gambling.
On Abramoff's direction, they shelled out an additional $300 thousand dollars to congressional campaigns to help grease the wheels of democracy. The effort ultimately collapsed. Arturo Sinclair is governor of the Tiguas officially known as Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.
BURNETT: Some people are going to hear this and they're going to say well you paid to play and you lost. And those are the rules of the game.
ARTURO SINCLAIR: You know I think within full disclosure is it not a conflict of interest to say, you know, by the way I was working to shut you all down before I came down here and tried to open you up.
BURNETT: What they didn't know at the time is that Abramoff had secretly worked for a rival Louisiana Indian tribe to lobby the State of Texas to shut down Speaking Rock Casino in the first place, along with another Indian owned casino in East Texas.
In order to get church leaders on board the anti-Indian gaming crusade, Abramoff hired former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed. Sinclair has read the subpoenaed emails between Abramoff and his associates in which he insults the tribe from which he's collecting millions.
SINCLAIR: These moronic troglodyte idiots, he just went on and on and it's amazing to me with Abramoff coming from his Jewish faith, that he would degrade another group of people. I go back and I say, you know what Jack, I still have my freedom next year. I wonder where he's going to be. In a, hopefully, six by eight cell.
BURNETT: Last month, Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges associated with his lobbying activities for Native American tribes. In an undisclosed settlement, his former law firm has repaid a portion of the money it took from the Tiguas.
BURNETT: What did you all get for your $4.2 million dollars?
SINCLAIR: Jack. (Laugh) It goes, I guess it goes on both senses of the word. If it's to say that it helped expose governmental corruption, I would say it's worth it.
BURNETT: Arturo Sinclair is a husky ex-policeman who wears his hair in a long braid and has a dream catcher hanging from his rearview mirror. He drives on to the tiny reservation, less than one square mile, that's tucked into East El Paso not far from the Rio Grande. Tribal members live in faux adobe homes strung along winding streets planted with yucca and cactus.
SINCLAIR: My brother lives here. My sister lives here. My mom and dad live here. And cousins scattered down the street.
BURNETT: At least the Tiguas have something to show for the boom days, a new judicial center, six convenient stores, two lube shops, and the 73 thousand acre cattle ranch. But with the loss of the casino income, the tribe is no longer self-sufficient. And now once again depends heavily on the federal government. The tribal governor pulls up next to a yellow school bus that's parked and locked.
SINCLAIR: There sits our school bus. Just vital, we can't afford the payments on the insurance, salaries, maintenance, fuel. So our kids have had to find alternative ways to get to school.
BURNETT: The Tribe's white elephant is the $25 million dollar wellness center. A modern stone-fronted complex fronted by palm trees.
SINCLAIR: (Speaking Spanish) Hi. Good morning.
BURNETT: It has state-of-the-art racquetball courts, gym, sauna and Jacuzzi, weight room, electronic game room, and an Olympic-sized pool.
SINCLAIR: This is competition rated, waveless pool, one of the very few in the southwest. Just about every other month it is leased out to the major teams here in the Southwest.
BURNETT: Sinclair walks back outside and stands out in the courtyard that looks out on a tribal housing development that could fit into an upscale neighborhood in Santa Fe.
SINCLAIR: When you look at the buildings people would assume that A, you're still doing good. It's like driving a Mercedes. I mean people walk around and they see you driving a Mercedes, but are you able to afford the maintenance and not worry? We are in hard times right now but we got to be able to make due with what we've got.
BURNETT: The health center alone costs a quarter of a million dollars a year to keep open. With gambling revenues gone, the tribe is slashing expenses everywhere. The wellness center is closed two days a week. No more free lunches for elders. Tribal employees are being laid off. But the Tiguas haven't given up and they haven't lost their belief in special interest politics. When the Texas Legislature meets this spring for a special session on school finance, the Tiguas will be there with a new lobbyist asking the state to please reopen Speaking Rock Casino. John Burnett, NPR News.
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