WASHINGTON – A Democratic research group is accusing the New Hampshire Republican Party of illegally accepting a $10,000 contribution from a Mississippi Indian tribe in 2002, then concealing half of it because it exceeded the $5,000 cap on contributions for federal races.
Two pro-gambling Indian tribes that were clients of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave $10,000 each to the state Republican Party shortly before a close U.S. Senate race won by Republican John Sununu, records show.
The party split a $10,000 check from the Mississippi Band of Choctaws between accounts used for federal and state races. Lawyer James Merrill said there was nothing wrong with doing that and the contributions were properly disclosed.
"The party split the money half to the federal account, half to the state account, and the party reported that," Merrill said. "Nothing was hidden."
Michael Gehrke, executive director of Washington-based Senate Majority Project, a nonprofit group that researches the Republican majority, filed a complaint about the Choctaws' contribution with the Federal Election Commission last week. He also said the state GOP might have delayed reporting the donation to avoid embarrassing Sununu, who opposed gambling.
The complaint was the latest salvo in the Democrats' efforts to find out who paid for and who in the national Republican Party knew about an illegal scheme to jam Democratic Party and Manchester firefighters union get-out-the-vote phone lines on Election Day 2002, when Sununu defeated former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.
The state GOP "not only arranged and condoned illegal activity in trying to stop New Hampshire citizens from voting in 2002, but did so with the assistance of illegal money," Gehrke's complaint said.
"To try and make some tie between a check like that and phone-jamming, it's ludicrous," he said.
Merrill said he believes the state GOP also split a $10,000 contribution from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, of Palm Springs, Calif., between its state and federal accounts. However, he was unsure whether it arrived as a single check. He did not represent the Republicans in 2002.
State party treasurer Robert Scott and the government affairs director for the Agua Caliente Band, Alva Johnson, did not return telephone messages.
News organizations had previously reported the Republican State Committee received $5,000 each from the two tribes and $5,000 from then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, in the final days before the 2002 election. The phone-jamming operation cost $15,600.
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to influence-peddling, had close ties to DeLay, who faces money-laundering and conspiracy charges involving Texas legislative elections in 2002 and is the target of a federal corruption probe.
National Republican leaders and White House operatives have denied knowing about the New Hampshire phone-jamming scheme, which has led to a civil lawsuit and three criminal convictions. James Tobin, of Bangor, Maine, who in 2002 was regional director of the Republican National Committee and the effort to elect Republican senators, is set to be sentenced in federal court next week. He has asked for a new trial.
The Senate Majority Project said no one previously realized the state GOP had received $10,000 from the two tribes because the Republicans fudged their reporting on state and federal campaign finance forms.
The Republican Party "took a potentially embarrassing, illegal contribution that should have been reported (and returned) before the election, and changed it into a legal contribution not reportable until after the election," the group said in a news release.
The $10,000 check from the Choctaws was dated Oct. 10, 2002. On campaign finance reports filed Dec. 5 with the FEC and Oct. 30 with the New Hampshire Secretary of State, the state GOP reported receiving $5,000 each on Oct. 28 from the Choctaws and Agua Calientes.
Gehrke said checks are supposed to be deposited within 10 days of receipt, and questioned the lag time in depositing the Choctaws' check.
"Eighteen days in the last four weeks of an election is a long time to have $10,000 ... sitting around," Gehrke said Tuesday.
Paul Twomey, a lawyer for the state Democratic Party, also said the Republicans should have reported receiving $10,000 on the FEC form, then noted that they transferred $5,000 to the state account or returned it to the donor.
"They have to report where they received it and then any disbursements they made from that account, and they didn't, and the effect is to disguise the amount," he said.
"The Indians are innocent victims (or) bystanders of this. I think they were used and abused by Jack Abramoff," he added.
Twomey said the state Democratic Party would ask the secretary of state's office to investigate the state filings.
Merrill declined to address the details of the FEC complaint. However, he told the New Hampshire Union Leader that the Senate Majority Project is a "shadowy" organization that wants to "throw mud at the Republican Party."