ELTON, La. – A casino-rich tribe wrote checks for at least $55,000 to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (search) political groups, but the donations were never publicly disclosed and the tribe was directed to divert the money to other groups that helped Republicans, tribal documents show.
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search), now under criminal investigation, told the Coushatta Indian tribe (search), a client, to cancel its checks to the DeLay groups in 2001 and 2002 and route the money to more obscure groups that helped Republicans on Medicare prescription drug legislation and Christian voter outreach.
DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority (search) and Americans for a Republican Majority never reported receiving any checks from the Louisiana tribe to federal or state regulators, their reports show. The donations, however, are recorded in memos and ledgers kept by the tribe.
"Enclosed please find a check for $10,000 to the Texans for a Republican Majority. This check needs to be reissued to America 21," Abramoff wrote the Coushattas in a May 2002 letter obtained by The Associated Press.
America 21 is a Nashville, Tenn.-based Christian group focused on voter turnout that helped Republican candidates in the pivotal 2002 elections that kept DeLay's party in control of the House.
Several months earlier, the tribe was asked to cancel a $25,000 check to Americans for a Republican Majority and to send that money instead in August 2001 to a group called Sixty Plus that helped Republicans in their two-year effort to get a Medicare prescription drug benefit through Congress.
People familiar with Abramoff's transactions with the Coushattas, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of ongoing grand jury and Senate probes, said Abramoff re-directed the checks at the request of one of DeLay's assistants.
The aide asked Abramoff to get the checks changed, expressing concern that donations from tribal casinos shouldn't appear on the rolls of DeLay's conservative political groups, the sources told the AP.
Don McGahn, a lawyer who represents one of DeLay's groups, said he had no immediate comment Tuesday. Andrew Blum, a spokesman for Abramoff, declined to comment.
Abramoff is currently under investigation by the Senate and a federal grand jury over allegations he and a colleague overcharged Indian tribes for their lobbying. Abramoff, whose ties to President Bush and DeLay are also under scrutiny, denies wrongdoing.
Kent Cooper, a former federal election regulator, said the transactions show how powerful leaders and special interests can hide money from a system that relies on public disclosure as its ethical safeguard.
"This shows how easy it is for interest groups, lobbyists or politicians to manipulate or redirect money into whatever avenue is dark and free of roadblocks, and the average person never sees any of it," Cooper said.
Tribal leaders who watched $32 million of their casino profits go to Abramoff's lobbying efforts now question why money they intended to benefit DeLay causes was often disguised or routed elsewhere.
"There's a pattern of trying to keep high profile entities out of the picture," Coushatta council member David Sickey said. "To me it tells me there's some effort at concealment."
The Coushatta tribe had hired Abramoff, a well-connected Republican lobbyist and fundraiser for Bush, to lobby in Washington on various pieces of legislation affecting their casinos such as the Indian Gaming Act, labor provisions and efforts to make it tougher to approve new gambling facilities, according to lobbying reports filed on Capitol Hill.
The tribe was flush with cash at the time from its booming casino.
Internal memos show Abramoff specifically advised the tribes when to send political donations and to whom.
Invoices show that among the charges was a $185,000 payment for use of a Washington arena skybox Abramoff leased. The AP reported earlier this year that DeLay treated some of his donors to a May 2000 performance of the Three Tenors opera singers in Abramoff's skybox.
A few weeks later, DeLay took a trip to Europe arranged by Abramoff. The House leader reported that the trip was paid for by an interest group, when in fact it was underwritten in part by Indian tribes.
DeLay has said he was never told that tribes bankrolled his trip.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee chaired by Republican John McCain is set to examine the relationships between Abramoff and the tribes further at a hearing Wednesday in Washington.
In August 2001, more than a year after the skybox and European trip, the Coushatta tribe was told that a $25,000 check to DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority should be "voided and reissued" to Sixty Plus, the memos show.
Sixty Plus, based in Arlington, Va., says it is "often viewed as the conservative alternative to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)" and played a key role in advocating the GOP Medicare precription drug plan.
Later, one of Abramoff's assistants would ask the tribe to void and reissue a second check to ARMPAC, this time for $20,000.
"Jack Abramoff asked me to forward these checks to you that have been returned from the various groups because they need to be re-issued with either different addresses or names," the assistant wrote in April 2002.
A month later, the request came in to reroute the $10,000 donation from Texans for a Republican Majority to America 21, the Christian organization that works on voter turnout.
America 21 calls on Americans to "repent" and says September 11, 2001, showed "America has lost the full measure of God's hedge of protection."
A ledger entitled "Coushatta Requests" shows thousands of dollars next to the names of dozens of congressmen and political action committees, Democrat and Republican alike -- though mostly Republicans. A tribal official said the "requests" were actually demands made by Abramoff.
Around a long wooden table, the Coushattas' new leaders are going through each invoice and memo, trying to get a grip on a financial disaster for their tribe.
The men who signed the invoices for Abramoff and his colleague Michael Scanlon are not at the table. They were thrown out of office in tribal elections over the last several weeks.
Hundreds turned out for the new leaders' swearing-in two weeks ago, and some Indians here say they look forward to a thorough housecleaning.
"We still haven't gotten to the bottom of it," said Verlis Williams, on his first day on the job at the tribal council office. "We have no idea of the extent of it."