WASHINGTON – The Democrat helping to lead the Senate investigation into Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying had his own connections to the controversial lobbyist's team and clients, including using his sports arena skybox to raise money.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., acknowledges he got Congress in fall 2003 to press government regulators to decide, after decades of delay, whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition.
Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and collected at least $11,500 in political donations from Abramoff partner Michael D. Smith, who was representing the Mashpee, around the time he helped craft the legislation, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The senator also didn't reimburse another tribe, the Mississippi Choctaw, for the use of Abramoff's skybox in 2001, when the tribe held a fundraiser for him there, instead treating it as a tribal contribution. He only recently reimbursed the tribe for the box, four years later, after determining it was connected to Abramoff.
Dorgan, who is vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that is investigating Abramoff, says he sees no reason to step down from the probe, which he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are leading. He said he had no idea at the time that any of the transactions were connected to Abramoff or the alleged fleecing of tribes.
"I never met Jack Abramoff but I am appalled by what we have learned about his actions," Dorgan said Thursday. "So I have never felt there was any conflict in my helping to lead that investigation. I think Senator McCain would agree our investigation has been relentless and that neither of us will be diverted."
Dorgan's contacts, donations and fundraisers involving Abramoff tribal clients and lobbying associates, as well as those of other lawmakers, have not been examined during the Senate hearings into the lobbyist's roughly $80 million in charges to the tribes.
The senator didn't volunteer the information, although he did disclose his donations in campaign reports over the years.
Larry Noble, the government's former chief election enforcement lawyer, said Dorgan should have considered stepping aside from the inquiry and at the very least should have disclosed all his own intersections with Abramoff's associates and tactics.
"I think any way you look at it he had an obligation to disclose," Noble said. "It is hard for anyone not to see a conflict when you're investigating the same activity you yourself were involved with."
Over the last month, the AP has reported that about four dozen lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, collected donations from Abramoff's tribal clients and firm around the time they wrote letters to the Bush administration or Congress favorable to the tribes.
Congressional ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in performing official duties and accepting political money. The Justice Department is investigating whether Abramoff, already charged with fraud in a Florida case, won any undue influence through donations and favors.
Dorgan on Monday sharply criticized the AP for reporting last week that he collected $20,000 from Abramoff's firm and tribes in the period when he wrote a letter urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund a school construction program that Abramoff's clients and other tribes wanted.
The senator, who has Indian tribes in his state, said he long supported the program, and the letter and donations had no connection. And he asserted that he never took any action or received any campaign help that knowingly involved Abramoff.
Dorgan, however, benefited from the very arena skybox that has become a symbol of Abramoff's controversial efforts to win Washington influence, records show.
The Mississippi Choctaw tribe, an Abramoff client that has been a primary focus of Senate hearings, sponsored a fundraiser March 28, 2001, for Dorgan's political group, the Great Plains Leadership Fund. The event treated Dorgan and his donors to a bird's-eye view of a professional hockey game from a skybox Abramoff leased in Washington's MCI Center, while lobbyists got the chance to bend his ear.
Dorgan knew the fundraiser was sponsored by the Choctaw and that two Abramoff lobbyists attended, but at the time he didn't know they were connected to Abramoff, his spokesman said. "He was told the skybox was the Choctaws'," Barry Piatt said.
Dorgan didn't reimburse the tribe, instead reporting the event as an "in-kind" $1,800 tribal contribution without specifying it involved the skybox.
Piatt said reporting it that way was legal and normal. The senator reimbursed the tribe $1,800 for the skybox earlier this year when he learned from reports that it was connected to Abramoff, Piatt said.
Documents the Senate released show Abramoff charged the Choctaws $223,679 to underwrite use of the skybox in 2001, the year of Dorgan's fundraiser, even though the tribe "very rarely" used it. Dorgan has denounced the fees as outrageous.
Dorgan and his staff met several times with Abramoff's lobbying team, according to the lobbying firm's billing records.
Smith, the Abramoff associate who represented both tribes and the Northern Mariana Islands, billed for at least four meetings with Dorgan or his staff in 2001. He billed for two hours on the day of Dorgan's skybox fundraiser for a discussion with the lawmaker on "minimum wage legislation," the records state.
Investigators have information suggesting Dorgan and his staff may have had more than 20 contacts with Abramoff's lobbying team involving the Marianas, tribes and other clients over the years, said a person directly familiar with the investigation who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the probe continues. Piatt said Dorgan's office doesn't keep records of staff meetings but that any notations in billing records shouldn't be trusted because Abramoff was fired from his firm over his billing practices.
Dorgan's office acknowledged he met in 2003 with representatives of the Mashpee, the Massachusetts tribe that Abramoff signed as a client and Smith represented. The tribe was trying to persuade the federal government to rule on its decades-old request to be formally recognized.
The senator used his position as a member of the joint House-Senate committee that approved the final Interior Department spending bill for 2004 to craft a provision that pressed the agency to "complete its review of the Mashpee petition as expeditiously as possible."
"Absolutely, he was involved. The tribe asked him to be involved and the Massachusetts senators supported it," Piatt said. "They had 29 years of waiting. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do."
Piatt said he didn't think Dorgan's help was significant because the action didn't order Interior to make a specific conclusion, only urged it to act more quickly.
But the Mashpee say the lobbying paid off because Dorgan's provision prompted Interior to speed its decision-making process. The tribe credits Dorgan and one of his colleagues, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., another frequent recipient of Abramoff tribal donations, for the provision.
"Both Senator Burns and Senator Dorgan were helpful," Mashpee spokesman Scott Ferson said.
The summer before the help, Smith sent three donations to Dorgan totaling $1,500, while a separate Abramoff client, the Saginaw Chippewa, sent Dorgan a total of $10,000. The Saginaw were interested in a second provision in the same Interior spending bill, inserted by Burns, that provided the tribe $3 million in school construction money.
The spending bill was finalized Oct. 27, 2003, with both the Saginaw and Mashpee provisions.
Six weeks later, Smith donated $5,000 to North Dakota Senate 2004, a joint fundraising committee set up to help Dorgan's re-election. Smith made a second $5,000 donation to the same Dorgan committee in February 2004, campaign reports show.