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Campaign Finance Reform - A Federally Built Bathtub for Baby Abramoffs

- Throw it ALL Out!

By Elaine D. Willman, MPA*

Before we become overwrought in righteous anger over the Jack Abramoff shenanigans, we must understand that a federal stage was intentionally built upon which many Abramoffs, Indian tribes and elected recipients now perform. At least two Presidential administrations engineered the environment that today has run over the cliff. Jack didn't operate in a vacuum, nor was all of his activity illegal. It was quite legal—most of it.

Here is a timeline that illustrates the federal construction of legislation and regulations that legitimized the money-filled bathtub within which Abramoff floated joyfully until now:

The Legal "Bathtub"

May 19, 1998: Executive Order 13084, signed by President Clinton established a Tribal Office in over 25 federal agencies to expedite all tribal requests.

January 28, 2000:  Federal Election Commission (FEC) Advisory Opinion No. 1999-32 declares that a tribe acting as a federal (utilities) contractor may (unlike any other federal contractors) make political contributions as "a person."

May 15, 2000: (FEC) Advisory Opinion No. 2000-05 declared that tribal governments are not governments for purpose of election contributions. This was just in time to amply fund Bush/Gore Presidential election needs.

March 27, 2002: President Bush signs the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that intentionally excluded "Indian Tribes."

March 14, 2005: FEC Advisory Opinion No. 2005-01 declares that tribal governments, even while acting as federal contractors or associated with federal contractors may continue to make political and election contributions. (To his credit, FEC Commissioner Michael Toner, vigorously dissented.)

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 has facilitated an escalating tribal gaming revenue industry exceeding 18.6 billion in 2004 alone. The oversight agency, National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) allows campaign contributions and payment to lobbyists as tribal "economic development."


June 1, 2000 Abramoff purchases (albeit fraudulently) the Sun Cruz ("Cruises to Nowhere") offshore Florida floating casinos.

September 2000, Abramoff achieves top political power...

May 2001: The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and other tribes hire Abramoff, who collects approximately 82 million by 2004.

February 2002: The poverty-riddled Tigua Tribe in El Paso, Texas provide 4.2 million in fees to Abramoff to help re-open their casino that Abramoff had helped close.

March 6, 2002: A single tribe, the Coushattas of Louisiana (one of 561 federally recognized tribes) cuts over 60 large checks to Congressional elected officials.

August 2002: Abramoff orchestrated the infamous Scotland "Golf Trip" enjoyed by Congressmen Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, and Christian Coalition leader, Ralph Reed.

March 14, 2005: Thanks to the FEC, Indian tribes are governments when in need of federal funds or special preferences, but for the American election process, they are not governments nor federal contractors, so revenue from tribal government general funds and casinos are available for unreported, unaccountable, and unlimited influence in local, state and federal elections.

It is interesting to note that a mere advisory commission, the Federal Election Commission appointed by the Executive Branch, could publish advisory opinions having the force of the rule of law across the country. Three FEC Opinions opened wide the financial faucets that converted tribal governments into persons for purpose of unlimited campaign contributions, even as many tribal governments also serve as federal contractors.

No other government (state, county, municipality) or federal contractor (i.e. public utilities) may financially contribute to America's election processes. The FEC intentionally created a special preference for Indian tribes that lured, if not openly invited, entrepreneurs such as Abramoff to jump into action to facilitate large, continuous, and secret election contributions from Indian tribes. Since tribal governments are not subject to federal or state campaign finance reporting requirements, huge tribal political contributions are even the more desired and empowered.

The FEC is a quicker, smaller, more quiet and efficient resource for constructing an uneven playing ground for America's elections than the more cumbersome Congress. And the greatest beneficiary to such inequity is, of course, Congress. 

Mainstream media is awash with ever-surfacing news of how Abramoff clients and funds received were redirected as contributions to elected officials, all made possible through FEC Advisory Opinions and the intentional omission of "Indian tribes" from campaign finance reform.

Before we get too teary-eyed about the scoundrels defrauding poor Indian tribes or deluding innocent elected officials, a few basic questions should be posed:

1.    How does an Indian tribe that receives annual millions in taxpayer-federal funds, and whose tribal families continue to live below poverty level or in squalor, justify kicking in million of dollars annually to a single D. C. lobbyist?

2.    Why has Congress, the Federal Elections Commission, National Indian Gaming Commission, and Bureau of Indian Affairs silently approved tribal gambling funds derived under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) to be spent on lobbyists and election campaigns as legitimate "economic development"?

3.    If the intent of IGRA was to promote economic development and improve the quality of life for tribal families on reservations, how have lobbyists of Abramoff's ilk, elected officials or tribal leaders accomplished this?

4.    Shouldn't tribal government decisions regarding use of their gambling revenue also be subject to just a teensy bit of scrutiny?

5.    Abramoff and Scanlon are simply the first lobbyists caught abusing a federal election system that begs for abuse. Isn't it naive to consider that they are the only lobbyists so engaged?

There are no clean hands in this dirty business. As foul as the stench of Abramoff's conduct is, the hands of all who participated in his schemes are equally odorous; that includes elected officials and their staff, other lobbyists and tribal leaders—all are equally as culpable as Abramoff. There is no excuse for Jack Abramoff. He could not possibly, however, have accomplished what he did without equally malevolent participants and co-conspirators, some of whom serve in elected office.

Lastly, someone at the Executive or Congressional level of government should clearly insist that the Federal Election Commission revisit its "Advisory Opinions" regarding tribal government campaign contributions, or in the alternative, investigate the influence behind such egregious FEC decisions that have allowed tribal governments political and financial power disallowed to all other American forms of government. These innocuous FEC opinions have effectively enabled some 561 federally recognized Indian tribal governments to purchase whatever influence they desire. The mere 50 state governments, unable to participate in elections at all, are clearly under siege. Voters reliant upon their respective States for clean and fair election processes have been entirely sold out by the FEC.

Until tribal governments are restricted in the same manner as all other American and foreign governments respecting lobbying and elections, it is not enough to just throw out one "baby," Abramoff; we must also throw out the corrupt "bathtub" that bred and fed him.

Elaine Willman, MPA, is the former Chair of Citizens Equal Rights Alliance. CERA is a national organization of community education groups and citizens in 25 states who reside within or near federally recognized Indian reservations. Ms. Willman is currently City administrator for Hobart, Wisconsin. Contact her at 509-949-8055; or send email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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