Tribal Donation to GOP Draws Scrutiny

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An Indian tribe paid $100,000 to the Republican Party at the same time it was trying to meet with Interior Secretary Gale Norton over land issues, internal GOP records show.

Republican Party officials say leaders of the Agua Caliente tribe (search) of Palm Springs, Calif., were never promised anything in return for their six-figure check in 2001.

But the donation and contacts are reminiscent of Clinton-era fund-raising practices that Republicans sharply criticized and investigated during the 1990s.

After the check was sent to the GOP, the lobbyist for the Agua Caliente Indian band sent a thank-you letter to a Republican Party staffer suggesting Norton's office was considering its meeting request. The leader of the tribe eventually got to air its concerns to the interior secretary during a congressional tour near the tribe's home.

The RNC (search) was forced to reveal its dealings with Agua Caliente and other six-figure donors in the ongoing court battle over revamping the system of financing political campaigns. The court publicly released the documents.

Following President Clinton's re-election in 1996, Republicans in Congress hammered home the issue of Democratic Party campaign donations (search) by Indian tribes seeking access to the administration.

In spring 2001, Agua Caliente chairman Richard Milanovich, a Republican, expressed an interest in joining the RNC's Team 100, a roster of donors who contribute at least $100,000 each to the GOP. The overture came as Milanovich and others in the Indian community were trying to get a meeting with Norton.

The tribe made the contribution because "it was in our best interest" and "it wasn't to look for any particular favors from anyone," Milanovich said Thursday.

It was "not for quid pro quo."

Before writing a check, the tribe wanted to meet with the RNC, and deputy director Jack Oliver agreed.

Handwritten notes outline the tribe's concern to Oliver about its lack of connections at Interior.

"Norton pushing off mtg.," state the notes of Milanovich's meeting with Oliver, who is now deputy finance director of Bush's re-election campaign.

Milanovich was concerned that governors and other elected officials were having too much influence on a proposed Interior regulation placing land in trust for Indians.

The regulation, proposed in the last days of the Clinton administration, was suspended by the Bush administration.

"I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss this issue with you from a tribal perspective," Milanovich wrote Norton in a letter that turned up in the RNC's files.

RNC spokesman Jim Dyke says Oliver told the tribe it should expect nothing from the party in return for a donation.

"We make it clear to people in meetings that they are giving because they support the party and in fact in this particular case Jack suggested maybe the money would be better spent on scholarships" for Indians, Dyke said.

Agua Caliente's July 5, 2001, check went to the GOP, instead.

Dyke said Oliver doesn't remember making a call to Interior. Regarding any GOP overtures to the Bush administration, he said, "We don't encourage anyone to do anything." Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle said he doesn't know if anyone called Interior from the Republican Party.

The tribe's lobbyist at the time, Scott Dacey, recalls that rather than offering the tribe a meeting with Norton, the Interior Department (search) suggested Milanovich meet with the No. 2 official at the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Milanovich declined, but Dacey and lobbyists for other tribes continued with their meetings.

Milanovich and Norton subsequently forged a relationship. Milanovich was in a group that spent a day in January 2002 with Norton on a tour of the scenic Coachella Valley in California.

A news story about the visit said Milanovich and Norton discussed tribal issues, adding that as Norton was speaking to reporters, Milanovich stepped into the group and praised Norton for taking "positive steps." Pfeifle said it is customary for the interior secretary to visit Indian tribal leaders when she travels.