WASHINGTON – A lobbyist and his partner exaggerated the threat of competing casinos opening in Texas and Louisiana to siphon millions from the Louisiana Coushatta tribe and then used the money to pad coffers of personal charities and political allies, two tribal leaders told a Senate committee Wednesday.
"They preyed on our political insecurities, economic insecurities and insecurities about each other," Kevin Sickey, the Coushatta tribal chairman told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
In October 2001, the tribe paid Michael Scanlon (search) $870,000 to create a grass-roots political structure in Texas because it was told Texas was on the verge of legalizing gambling and that would devastate the Coushatta casino, which relies on customers from Houston, the Senate panel was told.
"Our vulnerability simply provided an opportunity to steal and they hit the jackpot with us," Sickey said of lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) and Scanlon, his partner.
The Senate committee has been investigating Abramoff and Scanlon — a public relations specialist and former spokesman for ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The panel has been looking into the more than $80 million the two were paid between 2001 and 2004 by six American Indian tribes with gaming casinos.
Committee Chairman John McCain (search), R-Ariz., said Abramoff and Scanlon considered the Coushatta their "money train." He said his committee hopes to release a report from its investigation in January and may hold other hearings if needed.
The Senate panel also called Steven Griles (search), a former lobbyist who resigned last December as deputy interior secretary, to testify at the hearing. Griles is the most senior Bush administration official drawn into the investigation.
McCain said the committee also had subpoenaed Italia Federici, head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group that Interior Secretary Gale Norton helped found before she joined the Bush administration.
Federici did not respond to the subpoena, McCain said. Federici's group received at least $250,000 in contributions from four of Abramoff's tribal clients, but McCain said the committee could not find anything the group did for the tribes.
DeLay stepped down as House majority leader in September after he was indicted in Texas on state felony charges of conspiracy and laundering campaign funds. The charges against DeLay are unrelated to the Senate probe.
The hearing is the fourth by McCain into Abramoff's lucrative lobbying practice on behalf of Indian tribes and their casino ventures.
The Associated Press reported last spring that Abramoff had extensive access to Bush administration officials, including Griles, while he worked with the lobbying firm of Greenberg Traurig.
A separate Justice Department investigation is examining Abramoff's lobbying work. He has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida on charges of fraud and conspiracy stemming from his role in the 2000 purchase of a fleet of gambling boats.
Another former Bush administration official, David Safavian (search), chief of staff of the General Services Administration, the government's procurement arm, was charged this fall with making false statements and obstructing a federal investigation of a 2002 golf outing to Scotland that Abramoff took with Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and others.
The Coushattas hired Abramoff and Scanlon's lobbying services to help thwart the Jena Choctaws, another Louisiana tribe, from opening its own casino. As part of the effort, Abramoff directed the Coushattas to made contributions to political committees and conservative groups.
The tribe donated $45,000 to DeLay's national political fundraising committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, and another $10,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority, also founded by DeLay and now at the center the Texas campaign finance investigation involving him.
The tribe was told to void the contributions to ARMPAC and TRMPAC and reissue them to two other Republican-aligned groups.
Invoices obtained by the AP over the summer showed the Coushattas were charged $185,000 for use of a Washington arena skybox Abramoff had leased. In 2000, DeLay treated some of his donors to a performance of the Three Tenors opera singers in Abramoff's skybox.