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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:


Indian Taker
January 11, 2006; Page A15

Jack Abramoff was sui generis — a personality out of control, flamboyantly corrupt, engaged in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never have dreamed of. And yet one of the soggy paper bags that we journalists have a hard time punching our way out of is the notion that any scandal, when it reaches a certain prominence, must be representative. Enron wasn't the exception but the norm of corporate behavior. Jack Abramoff is just the protruding left toe under a bedsheet of K Street corruption.

In fact, the downfall of the man known in every press account as a "Republican lobbyist" was not remotely the upshot of workaday lobbying on behalf of corporations over this or that tax or regulatory issue. The media is wowed by the numbers in such cases but the millions the government giveth or taketh away are less impressive on corporate income statements, and are usually competed away in the marketplace for a company's goods or services.

How different when Washington can conjure vast wealth for specific individuals or small groups by granting unique privileges to exploit the public without competition, as in the peculiar case of Indian casinos.

Mystifying, then, is why all hands insist on treating Indians as Mr. Abramoff's "victims." Louisiana's Coushatta Tribe was under no compulsion to pay him $32 million; it did so to foil another tribe's gambling project and secure its own inflated margins.

"You're the problem, buddy, in what happened to American Indians," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell lectured an Abramoff associate two years ago. Huh? Mr. Custer's, er, Mr. Abramoff's sole interesting feature, aside from his self destructiveness and his possibly larcenous attempt to get into the gaming business himself, was his chutzpah in asking for such a big piece of change to do the tribes' dirty work.

Political anthropologists will have to excavate why Mr. Abramoff is a mega-scandal when peeps were barely raised about previous outrages in which the chief actors were public officials who presumably owed a higher standard of conduct. Say, several political appointees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs who, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, tossed aside expert advice and recognized a bunch of new "tribes" just before spinning themselves out the revolving door and into jobs as lawyers for Indian gambling interests.

One of them, Michael Anderson, after he'd officially left his post, continued to sign and backdate documents to help one tribe. Mr. Anderson, an "enrolled member" of the Muskogee Nation, and a deputy, Loretta Tuell, a Nez Perce member, are now partners at the firm of Monteau and Peebles, connected lineally to the very foundation myth of Indian gaming.

No, we're not referring to the prehistoric "hoop and pole game," touted on one tribe's Web site. The beginning traces to the ancestral year of 1983, when an unemployed Connecticut welder, who may or may not have been one-sixteenth Pequot, wangled recognition for his defunct tribe. With backing from a Malaysian billionaire, and over the impotent objections of most of Connecticut, he launched the Foxwoods casino.

Foxwood's operators felt vulnerable and in need of allies, so another resurrected tribe, the Mohegans, teamed up with another billionaire, South African Sol Kerzner. Swiftly approving their Mohegan Sun casino was Harold Monteau, the Clinton-appointed head of the National Indian Gaming Commission, who ignored opposition from agency staff and from both of his fellow commissioners.

Need we add that Mr. Monteau, a Chippewa-Cree, was eventually shooed from office by congressional critics (mostly Democrats)? His law firm, with the Mohegans as a major client, now serves as a landing place for other fixers on the wing.

Mr. Abramoff was sui generis, all right. He wasn't an Indian and obviously lacked the discretion to keep his sleaze between even such compendious lines, allowing him to enjoy the fruits thereof undisturbed by prosecutors.

If there's a lesson for anyone but lobbyist trainees here, it's not a very original one. Where opportunities for enormous, instant wealth are sloshing around at the discretion of bureaucrats and legislators, invariably is bad policy to be found.

Take the minority and small business "set-asides" that produce indictments and jail sentences with such regularity that it's hardly noticed anymore. Or take the FCC auctions for wireless spectrum: A Journal front-pager recently detailed how favoritism for "disadvantaged" entrepreneurs allowed an aerobics instructor and others to pocket large fees as fronts for secret investors.

Typical of high-profile scandals, the Abramoff affair is a spectacular bit of flotsam left behind by a tide that has already begun to recede. Dozens of defunct "tribes" still seek recognition, and dozens more have their eyes on reclaiming traditional lands that just happen to be near major population centers and freeway interchanges. But the backlash was already underway. It comes from gaming tribes that don't want their good thing spoiled, from state governments that covet gambling proceeds for themselves, from a Congress fed up with "reservation shopping" by casino promoters.

We're still a long way from any senator (John McCain leaps to mind) being willing to say "enough" to the enduring nonsense of Indian "sovereignty" — but even that may come.

Natives reply

Talking point: Blame the Indians for Abramoff

Posted: January 20, 2006

by: Editors Report / Indian Country Today

We've read so many columns lately with the same anti-Indian message that it's almost as if somebody issued a set of talking points. The Jack Abramoff scandal isn't the product of sleazy lobbying or greedy congressmen or even a degenerating political system, goes the current line — it's the fault of all those tribal casinos.

Can't say we're surprised at this chorus. Even though the few tribes that did hire Abramoff have been treated by investigators as his victims, they make too juicy a target for a growing array of anti-Indian forces to pass up. Political posturing adds to the cacophony.

Republicans tarred by Abramoff's networking are looking for a way to drag in Democrats. They figure they can defuse the scandal, like such previous Washington disasters as the savings and loan debacle, by making it bipartisan. Their gimmick is to fudge the line between the crooked lobbyist and the legitimate interest that used his service and point to all the Democrats taking money "from Abramoff's clients," meaning from the Indian tribes.

Beneath the din, some of the points are actually well-founded. The scandal has exposed a seamy intersection of narrow tribal intrigue, gaming money and Washington influence-peddling. Some tribal behavior deserves to be censured. The New York Times, in the least bad of the current commentaries, justly observed on Jan. 16 that "some tribal leaders are slipping into the worst habits of casino operators elsewhere." Its editorial homes in on one of the most disturbing episodes of the Abramoff scandal, the attempt by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to prevent the Jena Band of Choctaws to open a (presumably) competing casino.

This sub-scandal reaches high into the Interior Department. It ought to be fully investigated and condemned. So should be other cases of inter-tribal elbowing, such as the delayed approval of the casino application of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi (Gun Lake Tribe) in Michigan or the more shadowy allegations that established tribes have worked behind the scenes to block recognition of potential competitors. These attempts to demerit competitors clearly violate the spirit of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which is to make dozens of tribes wealthy rather than a few tribes obscenely rich.

Before we seek purification, however, we have to separate the real sins from the false charges and the fog of propaganda now filling the air.

The spate of recent polemics is serving up a pudding of old cliches and falsehoods, studded with some truly amazing plums of hypocrisy. Our friends at The Wall Street Journal weighed in twice in one week. Staff writer Holman Jenkins, in a Jan. 11 column called "Indian Taker," stated his termination agenda bluntly. Tracing the "scandal" back to the Clinton administration, he repeated the slander that gaming interests had resurrected defunct "tribes" (his quotation marks) as a cover for casinos and that they had corrupted government officials to win federal recognition.

(The Mashantucket Pequots, founders of Foxwoods, were actually recognized by a congressional act during the Reagan administration, five years before the gaming boom; and all of the recognition petitions he cites go even further back, to the late 1970s. But, oh well, as a Journal editorial page editor once famously told a reporter, "Don't bother me with facts. I'm writing editorials.")

But the tide, gloated Jenkins, "has already begun to recede." Although dozens of "defunct 'tribes' still seek recognition, the backlash was already under way."

"We're still a long way from any senator [John McCain leaps to mind] being willing to say 'enough' to the enduring nonsense of Indian 'sovereignty' — but even that may come."

This column stands without comment as a signpost of a dangerous progression. Incessant propaganda from the likes of author Jeff Benedict and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has sought to delegitimize historic tribes which have continuously occupied reservations from early colonial days. More ignorant minds have accepted and embellished their distortions until they became the accepted wisdom of the mass media, and generated calls for a truly vicious shift in public policy. Sen. McCain should slap Jenkins down hard at the earliest opportunity.

Jenkins might be over his head, but the other Journal contributor, Fergus M. Bordewich, can hardly plead ignorance. Bordewich wrote a book a few years back, unfortunately entitled "Killing the White Man's Indian," that annoyed quite a few of its subjects but made the interesting point that old cliches no longer fit the vigorous changes in Indian country. But in his Journal piece, "The Least Transparent Industry in America" (Jan. 5), he fell back on a set of new but just as false cliches. Sovereignty, he wrote, creates an "iron curtain" around the disposition of casino earnings that "offers an open invitation to money launderers of all varieties."

This statement is simply false. Tribal casinos are just as subject to federal money-laundering supervision as any other gaming facility or financial institution. They are required to file reports with the U.S. Treasury on all cash transactions over $10,000 and on smaller "suspicious transactions" spotted by floor bosses. Disposition of casino revenues is rigidly controlled by IGRA. No other type of gaming business, and certainly no private corporation, has a legal requirement to spend its profits on health, education, housing and government expenses before paying dividends. Even state lotteries have become notoriously adept at funneling money away from the education they are supposed to benefit.

We can't fault Bordewich for requesting more transparency in casino operations. We agree that it would benefit tribal members and the casinos. But we would be more impressed if he were quoting the open sources that are available rather than the exaggerated attacks of anti-casino activists.

Still, Bordewich looks like a scholar next to the National Review Online entrant, George Neumayr's Jan. 10 column "Liar's Dice." The subtitle sums it up: "Indian casinos are a shameless monument to the most cynical minority politics." Neumayr is especially enraged by two points — one, that Howard Dean is pro-Indian; and two, that some "mansion-dwelling tribal chieftains" live "in posh neighborhoods." Can you imagine how National Review would react to anyone who complained that corporate executives live in rich suburbs?

Oblivious to the irony, Neumayr continued, "There is no bottom to the absurdities of Indian casino politics. The fallout from the Abramoff scandal, instead of increasing sympathy for these casino hucksters, should outrage the public into ending their racket."

These diatribes have their impact. The Republican counterattack against tribal campaign contributions has unnerved some Democrats. In one astounding display of bipartisan hypocrisy, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic congressman from Nevada, announced on Jan. 10 that she would return a $500 donation she had received two years earlier from Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but that she would keep $1,500 she received from Abramoff's former employer, the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

Now, Milanovich is a solid, respected tribal leader. Greenberg Traurig is a center, if not an inventor, of the influence-peddling, campaign-contributing nexus in Washington. The Miami-based law firm was playing the contribution "bundling" game when Abramoff was running for president of his sixth-grade class. But Berkley's explanation for taking the money from the big-time lobbyists, rather than the tribal leader, was that, according to her spokesman, "she knows the people who made these contributions."

There in a nutshell is the worst scenario for the tribes. The Washington fund-raising, lobbying influence game will go on as it always has, no matter what cosmetic pseudo-reform gets served up as election year cover. But Indian gaming, alone of all the legitimate business interests in the country, stands to become the pariah and the scapegoat.


McSloy: Theodore Custer Abramoff — the worst since Little Big Horn

Posted: February 24, 2006

by: Steven Paul McSloy / Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP

How the Jack Abramoff scandal has done more damage to Indian sovereignty than anything since manifest destiny and the Little Big Horn

Jack Abramoff, more than anyone in recent history, lived out the life of the title character of Warren Zevon's song, "Mr. Bad Example," who "liked to have a good time and didn't care who got hurt." One would have to reach back further, though, to Pres. Theodore Roosevelt or even Gen. George Armstrong Custer to find someone who did as much damage to American Indian sovereignty.

Each of these three — Abramoff, Roosevelt and Custer — did the same thing to Indians: they saw Indians had wealth and they set out by any means to get it. For Custer, it was gold in the Black Hills, most recently the subject of HBO's "Deadwood." For Roosevelt, the greatest proponent of "manifest destiny," it was tribal land; and he made and enforced laws which, in his immortal phrase, were "a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass." For Abramoff, it was casino money, the first non-federally handed out dollars most Indian tribes had seen since the days of Custer.

Lately The Wall Street Journal, taking "Mr. Bad Example" as its point of departure, has in recent editorials been hammering away at what it calls the "enduring nonsense of Indian 'sovereignty."' Confusing the ends with the lack of means, it has taken Indian tribes to task for being poor, yet it has at the same time excoriated them for being wealthy.

One would think, however, that conservatives and libertarians would be the staunchest defenders of tribal sovereignty, as it embodies in reality what they can only dream of on a larger scale: local government, no taxes and no bureaucracy, all based on original intent and the plain text of the Constitution.

What libertarian would not want what George Washington wrote in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua with the Iroquois: the "free use and enjoyment" of their lands? What conservative would not say the original intent of that phrase was no taxes, no burdensome laws and no big government control? Instead of championing tribal "governments which govern least," The Wall Street Journal disparages them as "collectivist enclaves within a capitalist society."

Greed always gets in the way of principle. Rather than holding up Indian reservations as examples of conservative philosophy in action, Abramoff and his cronies looked at reservations the same way famed bank robber Willie Sutton looked at banks.

The Indians who fought Custer were lied to in the peace treaty — so badly so, in fact, that the Supreme Court awarded them hundreds of millions of dollars for the taking of the Black Hills. Most have refused the money, saying the land can't be bought, then or now, even though they realize it is unlikely the court will actually order Roosevelt's face be chiseled off Mount Rushmore.

The Indians victim of Roosevelt's vigorous enforcement of the "allotment policy" were also lied to, as the government never followed through with promises to bring Indian people into the mainstream economy once the land grab was over, leaving them not only poor but now also land-poor.

And Abramoff lied, too. Nobody argues that the Indians were forced to sign the checks, though Abramoff's work in rigging tribal elections certainly make it that much more corrupt. But Abramoff's lie was more insidious, and more damning of our larger society. What he told the Indian people, who after long centuries finally had two nickels to rub together, was that if they really wanted to be players, really wanted to once again be power brokers on this continent as they were in the days of the wars and the treaties, that they had to pony up, as Dick Cheney would say, "big time."

It is not the Indians who should be blamed for their cupidity; it is we who should be shamed that anyone could believe our society was so corrupt that you could throw $40 million at Congress and still not get a bill passed. Whether it was Wisconsin tribes paying $100,000 for a "Clinton coffee" or Abramoff's clients shoveling cash to the soon-to-be indicted, it all sends up a terrible stink: a smoke signal that says "government for sale." Perhaps the reason the Indian tribes were so willing to believe we are so corrupt is because they have known us and dealt with D.C. for so long.

The Wall Street Journal has written that "the time has come to abolish reservations for the good of the people who live on them." Custer and Roosevelt would agree. The Indian people, of course, would not; but such an expression of popular will ought not be allowed to stand in the way of the "mighty pulverizing engine" of the "daily diary of the American dream." It is, however, passing strange to see The Wall Street Journal do what it always decries about liberals: tell people what they ought to do "for their own good." In this regard, Abramoff might come off the Indians' champion, as he would disagree — but only because if reservations were abolished, his clients would go back to being poor and unable to afford him.

So for Indians, nothing ever changes but the date; and Jack Custer Roosevelt will keep reincarnating with every new form of wealth Indian people hold or devise. It is no coincidence that Zevon's "Mr. Bad Example," after careers as a carpet salesman, lawyer and hair replacement scam artist, flew to Australia to pauperize aboriginals working the opal mines. Maybe the competition in D.C. was just too tough.

Steven Paul McSloy is co-chairman of the Native American Practice Group at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed LLP, an international law firm based in New York.


A note to American journalists: More balance, please!

Posted: February 24, 2006

by: Editors Report / Indian Country Today

The language of termination is heard by the ideologically driven critics. In these pages recently, we analyzed the consistent language of termination introduced by prominent writers such as Holman Jenkins Jr., a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, who railed against those "defunct tribes" and their "enduring nonsense of Indian 'sovereignty."' Jenkins bemoaned the surprising resilience of any "Indian sovereignty," pining for an illusive termination from Indian friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an unlikely prospect. "[B]ut even that may come," Jenkins hopes, because the "backlash" against tribal sovereignty "[is] already on the way." This is intense anti-Indian tribal rights argumentation. It is being heard across the country and the chorus will continue to croak in the lineup — a dangerous mantra that the media herd too willingly now carries as "truth."

Rob's reply
Kudos to the authors and Indian Country Today for publishing these fine responses. A few more comments:

>> Mystifying, then, is why all hands insist on treating Indians as Mr. Abramoff's "victims." Louisiana's Coushatta Tribe was under no compulsion to pay him $32 million; it did so to foil another tribe's gambling project and secure its own inflated margins. <<

Not mystifying if you think about it. The Coushatta case was an exception. As Jenkins himself put it:

[O]ne of the soggy paper bags that we journalists have a hard time punching our way out of is the notion that any scandal, when it reaches a certain prominence, must be representative.

>> The beginning traces to the ancestral year of 1983, when an unemployed Connecticut welder, who may or may not have been one-sixteenth Pequot, wangled recognition for his defunct tribe. <<

See The Critics of Indian Gaming—and Why They're Wrong for more on the Pequots.

>> Take the minority and small business "set-asides" that produce indictments and jail sentences with such regularity that it's hardly noticed anymore. <<

Let's take the ongoing scandals at giant defense firms, espcially those contracting in Iraq, instead.

>> Dozens of defunct "tribes" still seek recognition <<

Many of those "defunct" tribes were doing okay until Congress terminated them against their will. If tribal groups are truly defunct, they won't be able to pass the BIA's strict criteria for recognition. Which explains why most recognition petitions get turned down, despite scare tactics like Jenkins's.

>> We're still a long way from any senator (John McCain leaps to mind) being willing to say "enough" to the enduring nonsense of Indian "sovereignty" — but even that may come. <<

Which "nonsense" is that? Jenkins must mean the constitutional right of tribes to govern themselves, recognized in court cases since the 1820s. Some nonsense.

Related links
The facts about Indian gaming—corruption
The facts about tribal sovereignty

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