Monday, April 25, 2005

The Flagrant Corruption of Tom Delay and the GOP Continues to Come to Light

GOP group caught up in missing tribal contributions

Jon Kamman and Billy House
Copyright 2005 The Arizona Republic
Feb. 27, 2005 12:00 AM Tracking what happened to $175,000 contributed by two Indian tribes to a political group called CREA leads from a disgraced lobbyist to an elusive environmental organization spawned by Gale Norton before she became secretary of the Interior.

The money, which the tribes say they contributed to the group at the direction of a Washington, D.C., lobbyist now under federal investigation, is unaccounted for in public records where federal regulations say it should be listed.

The absence of an accounting adds another layer to the mystery of what became of more than two dozen contributions missing among $300,000 in checks issued by a Texas tribe to 79 political committees selected by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

CREA stands for Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. According to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt organization, it has operated for more than four years without receiving any contributions or making any expenditures.

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana said it issued checks for $50,000 to CREA in 2001 and $100,000 in 2002.

Also, the Tigua Indians, whose Ysleta del Sur Pueblo adjoins El Paso, said they issued a $25,000 check to CREA in 2002 and included it in a bundle of other political contributions they sent to Abramoff to distribute. Tribal Lt. Gov. Carlos Hisa said the check was cashed, but he would not disclose how it was endorsed.

CREA President Italia Federici would not say whether the tribal funds or any other contributions were received.

"It is the policy of CREA that we do not identify or discuss our contributors," she said in an e-mail.

The Tiguas' contributions, mostly to the campaign funds or political action committees of members of Congress, were aimed at winning support for legislation that would allow the tribe to reopen its casino, which had been closed by state authorities after protracted litigation over the legality of reservation gambling in Texas.

Roy Fletcher, a spokesman for the Coushattas, said changes in tribal leadership made it unclear why an earlier administration had agreed to contribute to CREA.

Fletcher said current tribal leaders were not aware until The Republic's inquiry that the tribe had sent a total of $150,000. He said the tribe is looking into how the checks were endorsed.

In searches of public records where recipients are required to disclose finances, The Republic found no accounting for approximately $220,000 in contributions from the two tribes. The amount consists of $175,000 directed to CREA and $45,000 to other political committees.

CREA's origins date to about 1997, when Norton, then attorney general of Colorado, organized it with the name "coalition" rather than "council." Federici had been involved in Norton's 1996 campaign for the U.S. Senate, according to news reports at the time.

A spokesman for Norton said the Interior secretary has not been involved with CREA since joining President Bush's Cabinet in 2001.

Norton's leadership of the earlier incarnation of the group became an issue in her Senate confirmation hearing because other conservationist groups had branded CREA a front for the interests of oil, mining, chemical and pollution-risk industries.

How and why Abramoff expected at least two, and possibly three, tribes to benefit from making five- and six-figure contributions to an environmental group remains unexplained.

Evidence shows that Abramoff inquired in early 2002 whether a third tribe, the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan, had approved a $30,000 request for CREA. The tribe did not respond to the newspaper's questions on whether the money was given.

CREA has two staffers, a mailbox, a Web site and a telephone answering machine. Its most recent listing of its place of business, an address in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., is no longer valid.

Through a spokesman, Abramoff's attorney issued a statement responding to other questions involving tribal contributions, but answered inquiries about CREA with "no comment."

Federici, communicating only by e-mail, said Abramoff "did not, and does not, hold a position within CREA."

Federici insisted on an "off-the-record" briefing with the newspaper before deciding whether to be interviewed on the record. The Republic declined, instead seeking answers for publication.

In an e-mail, Federici expressed concerns over the newspaper's "misperceptions" about CREA, noting that a recent New York Times story referred to CREA as "a partisan organization that supports a balanced approach to improving the environment."

She said CREA conducts "considerable grass-roots lobbying efforts" and praised CREA's seven-member advisory board as "highly respected environmentalists."

Trying to track the political contributions by the tribes is part of a wider investigation of Abramoff and public relations consultant Michael Scanlon that is being conducted by the FBI, the IRS, Norton's Interior Department, other federal agencies and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

A grand jury reportedly is looking into Abramoff's and Scanlon's dealings with six tribes that paid them $82 million over several years.

"I think we're a long way from done on this one," McCain said Friday.

"Primarily, we're looking at what happened to all of the money," he said. Part of the inquiry, he added, is focusing on the political contributions.

"The Federal Election Commission (which regulates campaign finances) is looking at it, too," he said.

Two hearings were held last fall on the lobbying scandal. A third is about a month away, he said.

Federal tax code requires so-called 527 political advocacy groups such as CREA to file public disclosures with the Internal Revenue Service if they receive contributions totaling $25,000 or more in one year. Failure to do so is punishable by taxation of the amounts at the highest business rate, 35 percent, and possible daily fines.

Federici did not respond to questions about why most of CREA's reports to the IRS have been submitted under the name "Renew Our Urban Centers Fund."

In connection with the Tigua tribe's political contributions, a spokesman for Abramoff's attorney Abbe Lowell said in a statement, "While Mr. Abramoff solicited contributions, he was not the person to process them and believed they were handled properly at all times.

"It is easy for people to now blame Mr. Abramoff for every problem or issue since the media spotlight has turned on him, but on this one the ultimate use of those funds can only be answered by the recipient organization or entity, not by Mr. Abramoff," the statement continued.

"He simply has no knowledge of any recipient of tribal political contributions that failed to receive their contributions."

Among the Tigua contributions unaccounted for are $2,000 intended for U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl's campaign fund and $1,000 for U.S. Rep. John Shadegg's committee. The two Arizona Republicans said they would have logged such contributions if the checks had been received.

Two top leaders of the House, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and GOP Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also said through spokesmen that they found no record of receiving Tigua checks made out to their political action committees. DeLay's office said he received a check for his campaign fund but returned it.

Senate hearings last fall exposed what senators called deceitful practices by Abramoff and Scanlon in their dealings with tribes. The pair secretly split profits, backed candidates in tribal elections who would give them multimillion-dollar contracts, and did not reveal to the Tiguas that they had worked behind the scenes for closure of the tribe's casino before obtaining a $4.2 million contract to press for its reopening.

In recent developments, the Coushattas, who operate a resort casino at Kinder, La., and were the most lucrative account for Abramoff and Scanlon, have filed suit in state court for recovery of $32 million they paid the pair.

The Tiguas reached an out-of-court settlement this month with Abramoff's former employer, the Greenberg Traurig law firm of Miami. No amount was disclosed.

Efforts by Abramoff to quietly shepherd legislation through Congress for the Tiguas failed, but not before the principal backer of the measure, GOP Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, was given $33,000 in political contributions by the Tiguas and taken by Abramoff and Scanlon on a chartered, $150,000 golfing trip to St. Andrews, Scotland.

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