WASHINGTON – The top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying is returning $67,000 in donations in response to Associated Press reports that he collected tribal money around the time he took actions favorable to those Abramoff clients.
While Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., never met Abramoff and didn't take any actions at the lobbyist's behest, he nonetheless wants to return the money to avoid any appearances that tribal money was directed to him by the controversial lobbyist, his office said Tuesday.
Dorgan is the senior Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that has spent more than a year investigating alleged fraud in Abramoff's representation of Indian tribes, which were charged tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees between 2001 and 2004.
AP reported in three stories over the last month that Dorgan did not disclose during the probe that he took actions favorable to Abramoff's tribal clients, often around the time he collected donations from Abramoff's firm or clients. For instance, Dorgan:
—Used Abramoff's arena skybox in March 2001 to raise money, letting one of Abramoff's tribes foot the bill for using the box. The senator says he didn't know at the time that Abramoff leased the box. He's recently reimbursed that money.
—Got Congress in the 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 the Abramoff partner representing the Mashpee around the time of the help.
—Collected $20,000 from Abramoff's firm and tribes in the period around when he wrote a letter in 2002 urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund a school construction program that Abramoff's clients and other tribes wanted. The letter mentioned one of Abramoff's tribes.
The Coushatta tribe of Louisiana told AP they were directed by Abramoff to make a $5,000 donation to Dorgan's group just a few weeks after the 2002 letter was sent.
The return of the money was first reported in Tuesday editions of The Forum in Fargo, N.D. Dorgan told the newspaper he did not want to "knowingly keep even one dollar in contributions if there is even a remote possibility that they could have been the result of any action Mr. Abramoff might have taken."