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The Coushatta Connection

How a Louisiana Indian tribe was dealt into a scandal involving two associates of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and $66 million in lobbying fees

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On May 9, 2001, Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff did President George W. Bush a small favor by directing a modest sum of money to Grover Norquist. Norquist was bringing a group of Republican state legislators to the White House to sell them Bush's proposed tax cuts. He decided to use the event to make a little money for his organization, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). So he had Abramoff ask two of his American Indian clients for $25,000 each for the privilege of meeting the president.

The money that ATR raised at the White House three years ago is a small part of a big scandal involving Abramoff, his partner Mike Scanlon, six Indian tribes, $66 million in questionable lobbying fees and millions of dollars in political contributions.

After Norquist's request, Abramoff went to the Elton-based Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana -- his most lucrative account -- and asked for the $25,000 contribution that would also serve as a ticket into the White House. (Abramoff made the pitch to at least one other tribe as well.) For Chief Lovelin Poncho of the Coushattas, $25,000 was a small request from his go-to guy in Washington. But it was part of a process by which Abramoff and Scanlon moved huge sums of Indian money to political candidates, political action committees and pet charities -- and to shadowy businesses and nonprofits from which the two men profited enormously. That process, and Abramoff and Scanlon's three-year run as the top-grossing Indian consultants in the country, is currently under investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a federal grand jury, the IRS, the Department of the Interior and the FBI.

Also entangled in the scandal is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose Washington "network" was offered to Indian casino clients by Abramoff and Scanlon if the tribes would hire them. DeLay is the only member of Congress associated with Abramoff and Scanlon's extensive casino tribe dealings. After DeLay used his leadership position to kill a bill that would have taxed Indian casinos, Abramoff and Scanlon used their access to "the Leader" to attract Indian casino clients. (Neither of the two men seemed to have any interest in Indian tribes that did not have casinos.)

At one point, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, whose 107,000 square-foot Grand Casino Coushatta is located in Kinder, paid almost half of the lobbying fees collected by Abramoff and Scanlon. The tribe contributed more to DeLay's political action committee than it did to any other member of Congress in 2002. Because of his close ties with Abramoff and Scanlon, DeLay is the only member of Congress whose conduct has been questioned in an ongoing Senate committee investigation of the lobbying scandal. Other federal and state agencies are investigating the two men as well.

The Indian lobby-fee story moved DeLay toward center stage in the Senate shortly after three of his fundraisers were indicted in Austin, Texas, and he himself was handed three separate admonishments by the House Ethics Committee for transgressions unrelated to Abramoff and Scanlon. So for DeLay, who is lawyered up and watching a grand jury in Austin, Abramoff and Scanlon represent a third front in what now seems like an endless war over ethical and legal questions involving his fundraising operations.


THE PAPER TRAIL THAT LEADS from Norquist's office to the Coushatta Nation and to the White House illustrates how easily Abramoff and Scanlon extracted money from clients who were flush with casino cash and convinced that any political contributions the Washington lobbyists suggested, and the outrageous fees they charged, would serve the tribes' interests.

Norquist is the brains and muscle behind the policy of a Republican House defined by the "Class of 94," which made Newt Gingrich speaker and elected DeLay whip. By the time George W. Bush took his constitutional oath in January 2001, Norquist's weekly meetings between lobbyists and congressional staffers implementing the Gingrich-DeLay revolution were an extension of the permanent Republican government in Washington, D.C. He was also overseeing the K Street Project, a DeLay operation that ensures that only Republicans are hired for high-paying jobs on K Street -- the D.C. strip of lobby shops, trade associations and law firms. He was the most powerful policy advocate in Washington in 2001 and still is today.

Norquist's discreet approach to the Indian tribal leaders provides rare insight into the elaborate lobbying and fundraising machine that American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein describes as a modern-day Tammany Hall: a pay-to-play operation that moves congressional Republicans into high-paying lobby jobs and then requires them to contribute to the party and its various ancillary groups. Both Abramoff and Scanlon gave lavishly to Republican PACs and candidates. Abramoff, for example, was a Bush Pioneer, raising $100,000 for the 2004 presidential campaign while giving $40,000 to DeLay's PACs, and was ranked 93rd nationally among Republican Party donors. Scanlon, only a few years after he finished paying off his college loans, contributed $500,000 to the Republican Governors' Association -- the single largest donation it received in 2002.

The influence the two men wielded in Republican circles was further leveraged by the money they persuaded their Indian clients to contribute. The $25,000 contribution that served as Chief Lovelin Poncho's ticket to a meeting with Bush also served to answer the questions that North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad asked at the first Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on Sept. 29:


"What was the representation to the tribe of what their benefit would be from a contribution to the Capital Athletic Foundation, or to the Americans for Tax Reform for that matter? I mean, I'm trying to understand what the origin was so I can ask who made what representations about this.

"Was the request from Mr. Norquist?

"Was the request from Abramoff?"

Christopher Petras, who had served as the Michigan Saginaw Chippewa's legislative director, responded that he couldn't recall. But the answer to Conrad's last two questions is yes. Three weeks before the White House event, on April 19, Norquist sent an email to Abramoff, attaching the White House event schedule and making his pitch:

Jack,

Here is the tentative schedule of events. We would be honored if a representative for the Coushatta Tribe and you could come to the White House meeting and the lunch and dinner. Please get me their full name, DOB SSN for the White House.

Thank you so much for all of your help.

Later that same day, Abramoff emailed Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof, then the Coushattas' attorney:

Americans for Tax Reform is bringing together the speakers of all Republican led legislatures for a meeting with Bush and the Congressional leadership. They have requested sponsorship ($25K) from only four groups. Two of them will be major corporations and one will be Choctaw. Chief [Phillip] Martin will be coming to the event (I expect). I told them that I would ask you guys to participate. The exposure would be incredible and would be very helpful. One of the things we need to do is to get the leaders of the tribe (ideally the Chief) in front of the President as much as possible. Please let me know as soon as you can. Thanks.

Later that day, Van Hoof faxed a request signed by Poncho to Coushatta comptroller Erick LaRocque. Three days later, a $25,000 check drawn on the Coushattas' "governmental affairs account" was signed by Poncho and sent by FedEx to ATR. The transaction was fast, efficient and typical of the deals Abramoff did with other people's money. And it was repeated again and again for three years with the six tribes he had signed up as clients.


JACK ABRAMOFF WAS A NEW BREED of lobbyist when he went to work in Washington in 1994. Until then, a K Street cultural imperative held that no ideological position was worth the loss of one billable hour. Abramoff was an ideologue who cut a different sort of deal with Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds. The Seattle-based lobbying and law firm agreed to let him work on projects that suited his ideology. They must have had some idea of whom they were hiring. Abramoff's previous paying gig was as president of Regency Entertainment Group, which finances right-wing movies. At Regency, he produced Red Scorpion, a Cold War thriller that was so thoroughly politically incorrect that some theaters refused to show it because it used borrowed South African military vehicles in violation of an international boycott of the apartheid government and was filmed, under United Nations protest, in Namibia, then occupied by South Africa.

Abramoff was at home in Hollywood. He had been a football star at Beverly Hills High School before moving on to Brandeis University and Georgetown Law School. At Georgetown, he was elected chairman of the College Republicans National Committee, where the political careers of Norquist, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and Ralph Reed began. In 1981, Abramoff hired Norquist as his executive director at the collegiate Republican group, while Reed, who would later become executive director, was an intern sleeping on Abramoff's couch. The political menage a trois was profitable for all three men; 33 years later, Abramoff was cutting Reed in on $4 million in Indian casino work and moving his Indian clients' money to Norquist's tax-reform group.

But it was at Preston Gates, where he was hired after the Gingrich Revolution delivered the House to the Republicans in 1994, that Jack Abramoff's career took off. His relationship with Tom DeLay helped put him on the fast track. Abramoff had been introduced to DeLay by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a South African­born Orthodox Jew who, with Abramoff, founded Toward Tradition, a Torah-based group that works to strengthen relations between Jews and Christians. In 1994, Abramoff got behind DeLay's whip race. When DeLay won -- after spending $700,000 on Republican House candidates' campaigns while Gingrich's candidate, Bob Walker, spent $1,000 -- Abramoff was a made man. "He's someone on our side," said Ed Buckham, DeLay's chief of staff at the time. "He has access to DeLay."

Access to DeLay was important. "Washington firms were desperate to hire lobbyists with connections to the new Republican leadership," said a trade association president who works on the Hill. "They knew Abramoff was close to DeLay." Abramoff later told a crowd of cheering College Republicans that "Tom DeLay is who we all want to be when we grow up."

Abramoff was Preston Gates' biggest earner, with a single account bringing in $6 million. When he left to join the Greenberg Traurig firm, and Scanlon left to set up his own PR shop, Preston Gates almost went into mourning.

The younger Scanlon had a shorter resume and an even faster track to power in Washington. Out of college, he quickly moved from the staff of a Republican House member to a field director's job at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He stayed long enough to take over one failing House campaign at the request of Newt Gingrich. After five months, he joined DeLay's staff as a press secretary and was quickly promoted to communications director. With DeLay's assistant chief of staff Tony Rudy, he ran the Clinton impeachment "war room" in the whip's office. By 1998, 28-year-old Scanlon was at the top of his game. At the time, there was no hint of the scandals that would soon engulf both men.


BERTNEY LANGLEY SERVED on the Coushatta tribal council when Lovelin Poncho wrote the $25,000 check to Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. He had no recollection of the $25,000 contribution being placed on the agenda for a council vote. He admits that it might have been discussed and he has since forgotten it, but thinks it's unlikely. Sitting at his kitchen table in his house a half mile from the Coushatta reservation, Langley says that most tribal business regarding money -- lobbying fees and contributions in particular -- was conducted by only three members of the five-member council. (Those three members of the council are represented today by Austin attorney Kent Hance.) Langley's claim is supported by tribal documents obtained by the Dallas Observer, in which all correspondence regarding political and charitable contributions (and checks) are signed by either tribal council chair Lovelin Poncho or council member William G. Worfel. Leonard Battise, the third member of the majority, usually votes with Poncho and Worfel.

What Langley insists he would remember is a 2001 million-dollar contribution discussed in emails between Abramoff and Scanlon to the Eshkol Academy, the private Jewish school that Abramoff and his wife founded and ran in Maryland. Abramoff told the Washington Business Forward that he envisioned a school that would be a cross between a yeshiva and a prep school. Both of his sons attended the academy, which closed its doors shortly after his Indian clients left him and Greenberg Traurig cut him loose in March 2004. Press reports have the Coushattas, the Saginaw Chippewas and the Mississippi Band of the Choctaws contributing a total of $2.02 million to the school. A $1 million contribution is listed on Abramoff's Capital Athletic foundation's 2001 IRS filing, but the donor's name is redacted.

"A million dollars," Langley said. "That amount of money would have attracted everybody's attention. We would have been asking why were we sending a million dollars to a private school in Washington. I don't have any doubt that we never were told they were giving that amount of money to those folks."

David Sickey, who currently serves on the tribal council, also has questions about a $1 million contribution. Yet in a telephone interview, attorney Hance said the $1 million never made it to Eshkol or the foundation Abramoff used as a conduit to fund his school. "I know what the tax records say," Hance said. But the accountants working for him have found no record of any such check or checks being written. "It's not there," Hance said. But he does not deny that the Coushattas' money could have been moved through other entities influenced or controlled by Abramoff and Scanlon.

Hance says that Langley and Harold John -- who still serves on the five-member council -- had complete access to the tribe's financial deliberations while it employed Abramoff and Scanlon. Langley says that is completely untrue.

Abramoff and Scanlon might still be doing their deals with Indian tribes if Langley had not acted. Langley says he suspected that spending on lobbying was out of control when he began to see occasional invoices that were far larger than anything agreed to by the full tribal council when it met with Abramoff. But it was only when he was a lame duck on the council that Langley felt compelled to act. After he left the council, he would have no authority to demand accountability.

Langley was defeated in 2003, after serving two terms. He suspects that Abramoff and Scanlon manipulated the election to keep their majority on the council. "Seventeen candidates ran in that election," Langley says. In past tribal elections, he says, four to six candidates would vie for the open seats. "They were diluting the vote by running all those candidates."

Another member of the tribe observed that several members of the same family were on the ballot: "We're a small tribe, and we usually get together and decide which member of a family will run."

Documents released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee include detailed accounts of Abramoff and Scanlon running other tribal elections to install administrations they could control. ("Last night was amazing," Abramoff writes in an email sent the day after the Saginaw Chippewa 2001 election in Michigan. "The slate of 8 kicked ass Š. We had less than three weeks to take 8 guys we never met before and get theme (sic) elected.")

After he was defeated, Langley went to Erick LaRocque, the tribe's comptroller. LaRocque had already submitted his resignation. Langley believed he did so because he was concerned about the amount of money being spent on lobbying and contributions. "I asked him to give me a report on the amount of money we were spending," Langley said. LaRocque was hesitant to provide the accounting, although as a member of the council, Langley had a right to financial information. Langley persisted and LaRocque delivered the report.

LaRocque's memo indicated that almost $34 million had been paid to Abramoff and Scanlon -- not including contributions they had directed the tribal council to make. Approximately $24 million had been taken from tribal health, education and housing funds, with no provision to repay it, and the tribe had opened up a $10-million line of credit.

Before he left the council, Langley delivered the memo to Poncho Lovelin. He also had it delivered to David Sickey, a 25-year-old council member who had just won a council seat after running a reform campaign. Sickey has become the most vocal and public critic of the huge fees paid the lobbyists. He is supported on the council by Harold John, who is not as out front as his younger colleague. The money derived from the casino, Sickey said, "is intended for the long-term benefit of the members of this tribe."


THE COMPTROLLER'S MEMO -- as have many Coushatta documents -- found its way into the hands of Shawn Martin, a reporter with the Lake Charles American Press. Martin had already made the American Press the newspaper of record for Coushatta reporting. The Press had the lobby story months before it broke in The Washington Post in February of last year.

Martin's reporting in the 45,000-circulation American Press provided a roadmap for reporters hampered by the sovereign status of Indian tribes, which are not subject to state open records acts or the federal Freedom of Information Act. American Press accounts of excessive lobbying and PR fees are confirmed by a set of Capitol Campaign Strategies invoices obtained by the Dallas Observer, which total $7,155,000 -- for a period between January and October of 2002.

Capitol Campaign Strategies (CCS) is the public relations firm owned by Scanlon. However, the company's address -- 611 Pennsylvania Ave. SE -- is a mail drop. As a public relations firm, it is not subject to disclosure laws that would have pertained to Abramoff, a registered lobbyist. Each CCS invoice, four approved by Poncho and one by Worfel, is as stunning in its lack of itemized detail as in its amount. Entered on each invoice is only the date submitted, the description "professional services" and the amount owed. The largest single billing, dated March 13, 2002, is $3,405,000. When Abramoff's monthly retainer of $150,000 is added to the total, the Coushattas paid $8,655,000 for 10 months of lobbying and public relations.

To put that figure into perspective, General Electric paid two dozen lobbying firms $30.4 million, according to federal records compiled by The Washington Post, over the same three-year period that the Coushattas contracted with Abramoff and Scanlon. In the 10-month period for which the Dallas Observer found records, the 813-member Coushatta tribe was paying approximately the same amount of money for lobbying as one of the world's largest corporations. At the end of their three-year relationship with Abramoff and Scanlon, the Coushattas actually outspent GE by about $3 million.

The Coushattas had done considerably better with the lobbying firm of former Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, which charged the tribe approximately $152,000 a year before Abramoff took over. Johnston also stuck to the basics of lobbying, avoiding the redistribution of wealth brought in by the $300-million-a-year casino operation that attracted Abramoff and Scanlon to the tiny sovereign nation in southwest Louisiana.

If Kent Hance's accountants never find the $1 million reportedly sent to the Eshkol Academy, they and the forensic accountants working for the federal task force will find many other questionable invoices. Documents show that the Coushattas gave approximately $1 million to the American International Center, a "think tank" housed in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in a house owned by Scanlon. It was operated by a former yoga instructor and a former lifeguard, both beach buddies of Scanlon. It reportedly served as a conduit to move money from Scanlon to Abramoff, with at least $1.5 million in Indian client money moving through the center to Greenberg Traurig.

A separate $4.1 million in Indian gaming lobby fees was passed through the center to Ralph Reed, and his PR firm. Reed, the political consultant who once directed the Christian Coalition, was also hired by Abramoff and Scanlon. According to published reports and sources close to the investigation, to keep these huge sums off the lobbyist disclosure pages in the Senate clerk's office, Scanlon's PR firm did the billing -- then moved half the money to Abramoff, through companies or nonprofit foundations they controlled.

Abramoff moved so much money out of the Coushatta Nation that in an embarrassing email released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, he was incapable of explaining one $5 million transaction to his bewildered accountant.

There will be more to explain. The largest contribution given to any single member of Congress, detailed in a $283,000 list of "Coushatta requests" approved by Lovelin Poncho in 2002 (and obtained by the Dallas Observer), is $30,000 to DeLay's two political action committees: $20,000 to Americans for a Republican Majority and $10,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority. Abramoff later ordered the Texans for a Republican Majority check voided and a new check written to America 21, of Franklin, Tenn.

The Senate narrative begins with a Scanlon email to Abramoff that suggests building up Capitol Campaign Strategies, flipping it and splitting the profits. "Bottom line: If you help me get CCS a client base of $3 million a year, I will get the clients served, and the firm acquired at $9 million." It proceeds though racquetball dates, an unabashed list of $21 million in "Sub Rosa Payments by CCS [Capitol Campaign Strategies] to Abramoff" and concludes with Abramoff pleading with Scanlon to extract more money from the Coushattas. "Did we get the Coushatta money? Can you please, please get it written to the Eshkol Academy? Tell them that's our front group to cover some of this. OK?"

Much of the electronic correspondence between the two partners is enlivened by racial slurs. Indian clients are referred to as "troglodytes," "monkeys," "stupid mofos," "idiots" and "morons." The Senate committee documents include a note about DeLay's role in raising money for the front foundation that funded Abramoff's school. "Mr. DeLay assists in raising money for a youth activity organization called the Capital Athletic Foundation," reads a line in one memo.

"The DeLay thing is played up a lot in terms of our relationship," Abramoff told a friendly reporter at the Washington Business Forward. "The fact is when I pitch a client, I never mention Tom DeLay." DeLay has told reporters that he disapproved of any lobbyist making money by pushing supposed connections to him.

Tribal leaders must have heard something wrong. The Saginaw Chippewas report that Abramoff came in promising access to DeLay. Saginaw Chippewa tribal attorney Henry Buffalo told federal investigators that council members were convinced that even their contributions were tied to DeLay. If they gave money, Buffalo told The Washington Post, "Mr. DeLay would recognize that in some way. Mr. DeLay would be able to look on that more favorably than not."

Langley, who listened as a member of the Coushatta tribal council to Abramoff's first pitch, says it was all about DeLay. "They told us that when we hired them we were getting access to Tom DeLay's Washington network," Langley says. "They talked about their relationship to DeLay and how he would be helpful to us."

DeLay did once deliver for the Indians when he defeated the Indian casino tax bill drafted by Houston Republican Bill Archer in 1997 before Abramoff and Scanlon got into the Indian business. The two men could point to that and suggest they could get DeLay to do more. By 2003, documents show, Abramoff prevailed upon DeLay to sign a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, stating his opposition to a Mississippi Choctaw casino in Louisiana that would have cut into the Coushattas' revenue. Cosigning the letter with DeLay was House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt, both of whom had served as DeLay's deputy whips prior to 1995. It was an unprecedented act of the entire House leadership team on behalf of one Indian tribe located in a state represented by none of the elected officials who signed the letter.

Langley admits that Abramoff and Scanlon might have provided some help in Washington. But he contends they were so far out of the loop in Louisiana that they missed the biggest single threat ever faced by the Coushattas' gambling enterprise. In 2001, Gov. Mike Foster signed a secret compact that would have allowed the Jena Choctaw Band to build a casino on Interstate 10 between the Coushattas' casino and Houston -- the source of most of the Coushattas' business. The Jena Band had agreed to a 15 percent cut for the state, which would have allowed Foster to increase teacher salaries without raising taxes. Langley says he found out about the compact -- which the tribe subsequently blocked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- by asking around at a regional gathering of Indian tribes in Washington, D.C., in 2002. At the time, he was under surveillance. According to Langley and documents released by Senate Indian Affairs committee, Scanlon had billed the Coushatta tribal council almost a quarter of a million dollars to keep watch on Langley, the tribal attorney, several other Coushattas, and three other tribes. (Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof, then the tribal attorney, had approved the expenditure, unaware that she would also be placed on the watch list.)

The tribal council now stands divided, with council members David Sickey and Harold John making the case for financial reform and William Worfel, Leonard Battise and Chief and Tribal Chair Lovelin Poncho fighting off a recall. The youthful Sickey lost a Nov. 8 fight in tribal court. A judge upheld the majority's firing of a tribal election official the day after she delivered a sufficient number of signatures to recall Lovelin, Poncho and Battise.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is beginning what looks like a year of investigation. Hance, a Bush Pioneer who twice raised $100,000 for the president, and Louisiana political consultant Roy Fletcher, deputy campaign manager for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, seem like politically astute choices to represent the three-member majority of the tribal council as McCain becomes chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Abramoff showed up at the first hearing in September and asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege. Scanlon had evaded service by federal marshals and did not appear until a November hearing, when he walked through a chamber of openly hostile tribal members and took the Fifth.

McCain is going forward with the Indian Affairs hearing because "he hates Bush and DeLay," Norquist told the National Journal in March. In fact, McCain worked hard to get Bush elected. DeLay, however, was an implacable opponent to the single legislative initiative in which McCain has invested most of his political capital and energy: campaign finance reform. On one occasion, DeLay killed campaign finance reform for a session by ordering Speaker Dennis Hastert to break the bill into 14 separate sections before bringing it to the floor, making it impossible to debate and vote.

Norquist, a longtime friend and colleague of Abramoff, is not a big John McCain fan. Neither Norquist nor his office responded to inquiries about the Indian money they raised at the White House three years ago.

"Lots of bad things have been served up to happen to the Indian tribes," Abramoff said shortly before things started to unravel in February. "The role that we've played in helping them -- whether it's fighting efforts to tax them or other indignities -- that makes me feel good."

TOM WILLIAMS/ROLL CALL PHOTOS
  • Tom Williams/Roll Call Photos

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