Saturday, March 05, 2005

Lobbyist as Snapping Turtle

The New York Times
March 5, 2005

Lobbyist as Snapping Turtle

Why should an Indian tribe booming with casino profits deserve a $3 million school construction grant from a federal fund specifically earmarked for impoverished tribes? That's one of the many questions emerging in Washington as investigators track how Jack Abramoff, a smooth-talking lobbyist with close ties to Capitol politicians, was able to score more than $80 million in fees from roughly a dozen casino tribes that he promised inside clout.

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe in Michigan, an Abramoff client, got the money after pressure was applied by Senator Conrad Burns, the Montana Republican who oversees the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It turns out that Senator Burns has seen his campaign chest enriched with $137,000 in donations from Mr. Abramoff and his tribal clients.

Senator Burns pressed for the tribal boon over the objections of interior officials, who stressed that the aid fund was not for wealthy tribes - each Chippewa enjoys a $70,000 annual share in casino profits - but for poorer tribes with dilapidated schools. The senator denies any quid pro quo exchange. The Washington Post uncovered close social and employment ties between some of the senator's staff members and the Abramoff lobbying operation. But the senator insists he went to bat for the tribe at the behest of other lawmakers, not a lobbyist who flaunted his power-brokering in Super Bowl junkets.

Investigations by the Senate and the Justice Department began after tribal critics pointed out that their chiefs had been overcharged by Mr. Abramoff and his lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon, a former spokesman for the House majority leader Tom DeLay. Other politicians are undoubtedly anxious now about Mr. Abramoff, who spread his favors and the tribe's funds strategically in the Washington power game. In denying ethical violations, Senator Burns told a Washington newspaper, Roll Call, that Mr. Abramoff was "like a snapping turtle." "When he hooked on," the senator said, "He stayed on."