WASHINGTON – Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay tried to pressure the Bush administration into shutting down an Indian-owned casino that lobbyist Jack Abramoff wanted closed — shortly after a tribal client of Abramoff's donated to a DeLay political action committee, The Associated Press has learned.
The Texas Republican demanded closure of the casino, owned by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas, in a Dec. 11, 2001 letter to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The Associated Press obtained the letter from a source who did not want to be identified because of an ongoing federal investigation of Abramoff and members of Congress.
"We feel that the Department of Justice needs to step in and investigate the inappropriate and illegal actions by the tribe, its financial backers, if any, and the casino equipment vendors," said the letter, which was also signed by Texas Republican Reps. Pete Sessions, John Culberson and Kevin Brady.
Sessions' political action committee received $6,500 from Abramoff's tribal clients within three months after signing the letter. A spokeswoman for Sessions said he considers gaming a state issue. She said the tribe was circumventing state law and Sessions signed the letter in defense of Texas laws.
Ashcroft never took action on the request. The Texas casino was closed the following year by a federal court ruling in a 1999 lawsuit filed by the state's attorney general, John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator.
Kevin Madden, DeLay's spokesman, said DeLay's actions "were based on policy considerations and their effect on his constituents. Mr. DeLay always makes decisions with the best interests of his constituents in mind."
The letter was sent at least two weeks after the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal client of Abramoff's, contributed $1,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRMPAC. That political action committee is at the center of the campaign finance investigation that yielded money laundering charges against DeLay and forced him temporarily out of the majority leader's job.
The letter also was sent to Interior Secretary Gale Norton; the U.S. attorney for Texas' eastern district; the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who took over when Bush was elected president.
Its author appears to have been unfamiliar with the Alabama-Coushatta. It said the tribe was based in "Livingstone," and that the tribe had opened a casino "against the wishes of the citizens of Alabama." The tribe's reservation is in Livingston, Texas.
At the time of the letter, Abramoff was working for the Louisiana Coushatta and had portrayed the Alabama-Coushatta's Houston-area casino as a threat to his client's casino.
The revelation comes as DeLay has said he has given up trying to regain the majority leader post. DeLay had insisted until Saturday that he would reclaim the job after clearing his name in the campaign finance investigation.
DeLay is awaiting trial on charges he funneled corporate contributions — largely banned in Texas elections — through TRMPAC and the Republican National Committee to the campaigns of several GOP state legislative candidates. On Monday, an appeals court denied his request that the charges be dismissed.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians made the TRMPAC contribution on Nov. 28, 2001, according to court documents. An attorney for the Choctaw declined comment on how the tribe decided on contributing to TRMPAC.
Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal charges and is cooperating with investigators whose bribery probe is now focusing on several members of Congress and their aides, including a former DeLay aide. Abramoff's former business partner Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former press aide, also has pleaded guilty in the case.
The contributions are not necessarily illegal, but DeLay's association with Abramoff is under scrutiny. DeLay has taken overseas trips paid for in part by Abramoff, and his national political action committee used a skybox leased by Abramoff to treat donors to a concert.
The Alabama-Coushatta were never clients of Abramoff or Scanlon. But Abramoff targeted the tribe in his work for the Louisiana Coushatta, first trying to shut down their casino and then trying to become a lobbyist for the Alabama-Coushatta.
He and Scanlon were in a panic a month before the letter when the Alabama-Coushatta's chief said the tribe was opening a casino.
In e-mail, they discussed getting an official to threaten to jail the tribal chairman.
According to court documents, Abramoff also used the Alabama-Coushatta to carry out one of his bribery schemes.
Federal investigators have alleged that Representative .1 — later identified as Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio — agreed in June 2002 to introduce and pass a legislative provision that would eliminate a federal ban against commercial gaming for the Alabama-Coushatta "at Abramoff's request."
Abramoff pleaded guilty to telling Ney in June 2002 that a client, the Tigua tribe of Texas, was raising money for Ney's trip to Scotland. The Tigua had turned down Abramoff's request for the money.
Alabama-Coushatta Chairman Ronnie Thomas and McClamrach Battise, a tribal council member, said the tribe wrote a $50,000 check to Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation after the tribe was approached by the Tigua. But the tribe was not told the charity belonged to Abramoff. The foundation cashed the tribe's check on July 24, 2002, the same day the Alabama-Coushatta closed its casino.
"We never knew Abramoff was in the picture," Battise said.
Carlos Hisa, lieutenant governor of the Tiguas, said he did not tell the Alabama-Coushatta that Abramoff wanted the money.
"We told them it was for a golfing trip and certain individuals from Congress were going to go that were going to help us with our cause," Hisa said. "Abramoff had told us even from the very beginning the entire thing was top secret. Only a few could know because the language was going to be sneaked in."
Hisa said he regrets not being more truthful. "I didn't set out to do any damage to the tribe," he said.
Documents show Abramoff hoped to eventually be on the tribe's payroll, making millions for helping them reopen the casino DeLay wanted shut down. Abramoff was pressing a Tigua representative to get the Alabama-Coushatta to sign over 10 percent of the tribe's future gaming revenues to a "foundation" he would later designate.
Frederick Petti, an attorney for the Alabama-Coushatta, has filed a demand letter for return of its $50,000 and damages with Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's former employer.
Greenberg Traurig spokeswoman Jill Perry would not answer questions about the letter but said in an e-mailed statement that the firm demanded Abramoff resign when he told them of his conduct. The plea agreement has revealed further conduct the firm was unaware of, she said.