Tribes fear fallout over Abramoff

Jan 17, 2006 3:14 AM


Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, apologized last week for his tribe’s involvement with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Speaking at the 11th annual Western Indian Gaming Conference, Milanovich reportedly said, "It pains me, hurts me to know that the fallout from that (scandal) is affecting all of Indian Country."

The Agua Caliente paid Abramoff and his associate Tom Scanlon $10 million in an attempt to influence Washington lawmakers. The tribe is one of six that paid the lobbyist a total of more than $66 million. Milanovich said the tribe is now trying to recoup their losses and are doing everything they can to correct the situation.

Fallout from the Abramoff scandal has many tribal leaders worried. California Nations Indian Gaming Association chairman Anthony Miranda told those gathered at the conference, "The same people who want to take away our rights are those who will use the disgraceful acts of Jack Abramoff to advance their cause."

Miranda added it was time for tribal leaders to represent themselves in Washington.

A case in point is that of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians, the Cape Cod-based tribe famous for taking the Pilgrims under their wing in 1620. The tribe has been working for 30 years to get federal recognition, and now fears the process will be delayed further due to their lobbyists’ association with Abramoff.

Last year, the Wampanoag’s tribal council paid $100,000 to Kevin Ring and Michael Smith in an attempt to move their application forward. Ring and Smith worked for the same law firm as Abramoff until 2004.

The BIA is finally actively considering the tribe’s application, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office must review it for any indications of undue influence. Although Ring and Smith have not been accused of any wrongdoing, and Abramoff himself was never involved in the tribe’s case, the association alone could cause a snag. Federal recognition would give the Wampanoag rights including the ability to build a casino.

Federal recognition

Denying federal recognition of tribes appears to be the latest tactic in halting casino building in places where opponents can afford to throw their weight around.

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a letter declaring that they do not regard the Shinnecock Nation as a federally recognized tribe, despite a November 2005 ruling by Federal Court Judge Thomas C. Platt that declared them so. The Shinnecock, based in Long Island, N.Y., have been working to receive federal recognition since 1978.

Federal recognition is the first step in the Shinnecock’s goal to build a casino in Southampton. Complicating matters are the fact that there is debate over the ownership of the land the tribe is eyeing, and the town itself has filed a lawsuit to keep the tribe from building there.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) sent letters to the BIA, which is run under the DOI, and the New York State Senate and Assembly urging them to block any attempts by the Shinnecocks to build a casino in Hampton Bays. In a statement, Schumer said, "By setting aside Judge Platt’s unprecedented ruling, the DOI has set a clear path forward that eliminates short cuts that would have made the realization of an unwanted, inappropriate East End casino more likely."

The Shinnecocks are holding on to Platt’s ruling. The tribe has cited previous cases in which the DOI has accepted tribal recognition by courts acting outside of the Federal Acknowledgment Process. But the BIA says they are not bound by Platt’s ruling and that the Shinnecock Nation must go through the process. A statement issued by the tribe declared, "We are a federally recognized Indian tribe and we will never stop fighting until the United States government acknowledges what is rightfully ours."

And finally, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, based in Kent, Connecticut, filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of having their tribal recognition reinstated. Chief Richard L. Velky told the Hartford Courant that the state attorney general and other political leaders worked with Washington, D.C. lobbyists to reverse a 2004 ruling and deny the tribe federal recognition.

The Schaghticokes believe the DOI’s original ruling was altered because of "heavily weighted political influence" from elected officials, lobbyists and a citizens’ group, the Town Action to Save Kent. The tribe has tried to build a casino in Bridgeport, with much opposition.

The DOI maintain that their rejection was based on the tribe’s failure to prove it had a consistently intact community with its own government over the last 200 years. But tribal leaders say the DOI ignored new evidence.