Indian Tribe Severs Ties to Federal Abramoff Money

One of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's former tribal clients is severing ties to millions of dollars in federal aid he helped arrange.

Leaders of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of Michigan said Thursday in two letters to lawmakers that they will not move forward with plans to build a school on the reservation. The project received $3 million in funding from the federal government with help from Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty in a Justice Department corruption probe.

The letters, obtained by The Associated Press, were addressed to Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Reps. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., and Norm Dicks, D-Wash. The lawmakers chair the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees that oversee the Interior Department.

Saginaw Tribal Chief Fred Cantu and Tribal Sub-Chief Tim Davis said they were "writing to express our appreciation for the $3 million appropriation" approved in November 2003.

But "after careful consideration," they wrote, the tribal council voted against the construction because "it is not financially prudent to pursue this project at this time."

The tribe asked that the funds be redirected to programs targeted for cuts by the Interior Department. Messages were left Thursday with tribal officials.

Through letters and legislation, more than a dozen lawmakers stepped in to protect the school funding program for Indian tribes while receiving political contributions from the tribes, Abramoff or his firm.

One of Abramoff's client tribes, the Mississippi Choctaw, was using the school program, and his team was lobbying to extend it for the Saginaw Chippewas and other clients.

The members of Congress came from both parties, including Taylor, Burns and Dorgan, the top Democrat on the Senate committee which has investigated Abramoff.

Most wrote letters urging the Bush administration to renew a program that provided tribes federal school construction money. Others worked the congressional budget process to ensure it happened, according to documents obtained by The AP.

Most received donations, ranging from $1,000 to more than $74,000, in the weeks just before or after their intervention.

Both Burns and Dorgan received thousands of dollars from Abramoff's tribal clients, money they pledged to give away late last year. Dorgan returned $67,000 in contributions from tribes and other Abramoff associates, while Burns returned or gave away about $150,000.

Burns, who is seeking re-election this year, has said he wrote the letters at the request of Michigan lawmakers who represented the Saginaw and wasn't influenced by Abramoff. Democrats have tried to make Abramoff a campaign issue, running a television ad last year that specifically mentioned the Saginaw school construction money.

The Michigan lawmakers — Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. Dave Camp — wrote a letter to the Interior Department on Jan. 23, 2003, on the Saginaw's behalf. All three received donations from the Saginaw.

Officials with Levin, Stabenow and Camp have said there was no connection between the letter and the contributions and said they were working on behalf of Michigan constituents. The tribe is located in Camp's central Michigan district.

Burns spokesman James Pendleton said Thursday that "questions about this issue need to be directed to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and Senators Stabenow and Levin since they were the ones who requested the money in the first place."

Levin spokeswoman Tara Andringa said the senators sought the funding from the appropriations subcommittee during the previous year — in March 2002. But she said Levin and Stabenow did not pursue the funding from the subcommittee in 2003.

Abramoff worked for the Saginaw Chippewas from late 2001 to late 2003. The tribe said they paid about $14 million to Abramoff and his former associate, Michael Scanlon.

Scanlon pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to bribe public officials, a charge stemming from the investigation into work he and Abramoff performed for Indian tribes in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Michigan. In January, Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud and agreed to cooperate in the influence-peddling investigation.

A Senate panel learned in 2004 that Abramoff and Scanlon spent $100,000 to help get eight supporters elected to the Saginaw Chippewas' 12-member council in 2001. Two days after the election, the new council voted to hire Abramoff and Scanlon.

According to a federal complaint against Abramoff issued in January, prosecutors said the lobbyist encouraged the Saginaw Chippewas to expand their contract with the company in June 2002 without telling them he would receive about 50 percent of the profits.

From June 2002 to October 2003, the tribe paid the firm about $3.5 million. About $540,000 was secretly kicked back to Abramoff as part of the scheme, the court documents said.