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What Indian money buys

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Posted: Sunday, October 22, 2006 6:28 am | Updated: 2:23 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Jack Jackson should have been a natural to tap into the millions of dollars Arizona’s Indian tribes pump into elections. A member of the Navajo Nation, Jackson had represented his people as a Democrat in the state Legislature, as his father had before him.

So when Jackson decided to take on Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., in this year’s congressional election, he was banking on early financial support from Arizona’s casino-rich Indian communities.

What he got instead was a rude awakening — $2,000 from a single Arizona tribe and $5,550 from out-of-state Indian communities.

The lesson for Jackson is that when it comes to Indian money, political loyalty runs thicker than blood.

Renzi is not an Indian. But he is a favorite of the tribes, an incumbent who almost always takes their side in Congress. His reward so far this election is almost $80,000 from Indian tribes, including about $25,400 from Arizona communities.

“I certainly was banking on getting better support from the tribes when I started,” said Jackson, who scrapped his congressional bid in March, citing trouble raising money. “I don’t know why they weren’t quicker with the checkbook.”

Indian tribes have become a powerful force in politics. They are among the top financiers of state elections in Arizona, and their financial influence is growing nationally.

Flush with casino revenue, Arizona’s 22 tribes have paid more than $48 million to push their political agenda in the last six years. Almost all of it came from tribes that operate casinos.

Most of their largesse — $30.7 million — went to a pair of 2002 state ballot initiatives to expand gaming at Indian casinos. An additional $4.6 million was spread across dozens of congressional candidates and partisan political committees nationwide. The balance — $12.9 million — was used to pay lobbyists to push tribal agendas that some in Congress say are being skewed toward protecting casinos at the expense of other issues affecting Indian communities.

The biggest beneficiaries of tribal money in Arizona are Reps. J.D. Hayworth and Renzi, both Republicans who routinely collect the maximum allowed by law from both Arizona and out-ofstate tribes.

This election cycle, Hayworth has raised almost $98,000 from tribes, less than a fourth of it from Arizona reservations, according to a Tribune analysis of campaign disclosure reports. He ranks fourth nationally among members of Congress in terms of how much he collects from Indian casino interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal political donations.

HAYWORTH’S TEAM

Hayworth is so successful at raising money from Indian tribes that at least four of them gave money to his 2008 campaign after reaching the limits of what they can donate this cycle.

Hayworth’s political action committee, TEAM PAC, collected an additional $54,000 from tribes, more than half of the PAC’s total earnings this election. Hayworth pays his wife, Mary, more than $2,000 per month to run TEAM PAC.

What tribes are buying with their money is not votes on specific legislation, said Joni Ramos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the state’s top tribal donor to political campaigns. Rather, they are seeking access, sending their money to lawmakers who are willing to listen to tribal concerns and have a history of supporting Indian interests, she said.

“When we look at any contribution we make, we look to see who is going to support our issues, as well as other Native American issues,” Ramos said. “What we are looking at is to make sure that all legislators understand our issues. Anything that’s done at the national level affects us here locally. You have to characterize it as an essential part of doing business.”

But some on the reservations say their elected leaders are squandering money on political contributions, money that could be better spent to help their people. Lori Thomas-Luna Riddle, a Gila River Indian Community member who is active in social issues on the reservation, said poverty, unemployment and substandard housing are rampant in her community.

“It’s very disturbing because that is money that can be used for these things that we are all concerned about,” Riddle said. “Gila River spends too much money on other things instead of right here at home. It’s just ridiculous to see the tribe trying to become some big player in the game.”

FINDING A VOICE

Getting a political voice has been slow in coming, said Ivan Makil, who spent 12 years as president of the Salt River community. He remembers what it was like for Indians before the casinos, before the money, before the political clout.

Makil was the tribe’s director of community relations in the early 1980s. It was his job to set up meetings with political leaders. Before the casinos, Indians were the poorest of the poor in America, with no money for lobbyists or political donations, he said.

“No clout whatsoever,” is how Makil described Indians’ past political power. “There was a total lack of respect for the tribes as viable, functioning governments.”

Most tribes do not have a large enough population to deliver electiontipping votes. Indians did not even have a right to vote in Arizona until 1948.

The dynamic began to change in Arizona in the 1980s, when the state needed Salt River reservation land to build the Pima Freeway stretch of Loop 101, Makil said. Because tribes are sovereign governments, and not subject to condemnation, politicians were forced to negotiate with them.

The most dramatic shift in Indian political power in Arizona happened in a dirt parking lot at a bingo hall on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in 1992. Federal agents raided the casino and seized slot machines that had been illegally brought in. Tribal members blocked the exit with heavy trucks and their own bodies to prevent the removal of the machines, triggering a standoff that lasted until an agreement with then-Gov. Fife Symington allowed a limited number of slot machines on tribal land.

A 1996 ballot initiative financed by the tribes forced the state to enter into agreements allowing other tribes to operate casinos.

CASHING IN

Since then the money has been rolling in, especially to tribes like Fort McDowell, Salt River and Gila River that abut urban areas in the Valley. With the money has come the political clout that eluded most tribes for centuries.

In 1996, a coordinated effort between the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association encouraged tribes to be more politically active by donating money to targeted congressional campaigns, said Makil, who was chairman of the effort. That helped people who are supportive of Indian issues get elected, he said.

As more and bigger casinos came on line through the late 1990s, the tribes’ ability to influence elections also boomed.

Ten years ago, Arizona tribes gave just $11,000 to federal campaigns. By the 2000 election, the figure had reached nearly $200,000, and this year it is already more than a half-million dollars.

The trend is similar to the national pattern of tribal giving. In the last 10 years, tribes have donated about $26.7 million to federal campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the six years before that, tribes had given less than $900,000.

More than 99 percent of the donations to federal campaigns come from tribes with casinos, according to congressional records.

But the newfound wealth and influence have come with a political price. Indian money is a particularly volatile issue this year because of the influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. Most of the money Abramoff passed around Washington came from tribes that operate casinos.

Hayworth and TEAM PAC received about $64,000 from Abramoff and his clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That puts him second among congressional recipients of Abramoff-related donations.

For the most part, tribal leaders and politicians are reluctant to discuss Indian money. Though Ramos spoke to the Tribune, elected officials at the Valley’s two other Indian tribes — the Fort McDowell and Gila River communities — would not.

Politicians who represent the East Valley were reluctant to talk about Indian money as well.

Hayworth answered a few questions when cornered after an event in Scottsdale earlier this month, but then said he had to leave and did not answer requests for an interview to discuss his tribal donations in detail.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., refused to discuss the issue, and neither Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., nor members of his staff responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Even Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, both Arizona Republicans, who do not accept donations from tribes that operate casinos, were guarded in commenting on the politicians who do take Indian money, and the tribes that dole it out.

“I don’t begrudge them for what they’re doing,” Flake said of the tribes. “We create the laws and we create these loopholes, and I don’t begrudge anybody for using them.”

PRESSURE TO PAY

What tribes are doing when they spend their money on the political process is trying to be heard amid the chatter of Washington, where campaign donations are often the currency that gets people’s attention, said Don Pongrace, lobbyist for the Gila River community.

So much of what happens in Indian country is dictated by Congress and federal agencies, Pongrace said. It makes sense that tribes that have profited through gaming would use some of that money to hire lobbyists and lawyers to protect their interests, he said.

With that political activism has come the expectation from members of Congress that tribes contribute to their campaigns, Pongrace said.

“It’s not that they expect to get anything from it,” Pongrace said. “It’s just that if they are going to play here in Washington, it’s an expectation.”

Since 2001, the Gila River community has paid $8.3 million in fees to Pongrace and other lobbyists. The tribe has given an additional $1.3 million to candidates and partisan political organizations at the federal level and in Arizona.

Those numbers sound big, but are misleading, Pongrace said.

Most of the reported lobbying fees were for legal work — not lobbying — related to the landmark Gila River Water Settlement, a 2004 law that resolved decades-long disputes over Indian water rights in Arizona, he said. Legal fees do not have to be reported as lobbying, but Pongrace said he reported his total billings to ensure complete disclosure.

Political activity by tribes also is unfairly lumped together as casino interests, Pongrace said. In truth, tribes like Gila River are sovereign governments responsible for the well-being of their people, much like cities that pay far more for lobbyists and staff attorneys, he said.

Tribes also are major employers. The donations and lobbying fees are not out of line with those of big corporations, which give millions through PACs, and through individual donations by their stockholders and officers, he said.

NOT BIGGEST DONORS

The $5.6 million donated by Indian gaming interests so far in the 2006 election cycle is dwarfed by other industries contributing to federal campaigns through their PACs. Labor groups, for instance, have given about $44 million this election cycle, according to rankings by Political MoneyLine, another group that tracks federal campaign contributions. The financial industry has donated more than $40 million through its PACs and the health care industry has added $28.8 million.

Even among Arizona’s top recipients of Indian money, tribes are not the top special interest donors. The $97,870 Hayworth received from Indian tribes is surpassed by the $175,000 he got from the health care industry and $149,269 he got from the financial industry. Hayworth has raised more than $2.3 million this election, according to his most recent disclosure reports, which cover donations through September.

But Indian tribes are not treated the same as other interest groups in federal election law. State and city governments cannot spend money on political donations. Indian tribes do.

Corporations and labor unions cannot donate directly from their general funds. Indian tribes can.

Corporations have to form PACs in order to donate to federal campaigns, and file regular reports disclosing those donations. Indian tribes don’t.

THE ‘TRIBAL LOOPHOLE’

That is because of a quirk in federal law known as the “tribal loophole,” which allows tribes to donate money as “individuals.” But unlike other individuals, whose total donations are capped at $101,400 in a two-year election cycle, there is no limit on how much a tribe can give. In all three election cycles beginning with the 2002 campaign, both the Salt River and Gila River communities have exceeded the aggregate cap to federal campaigns.

Candidates who take tribal money do have to abide by the limits. That means a candidate cannot accept more than $4,200 per election cycle, $2,100 each for the primary and general campaigns. Candidates also must report their tribal contributions.

Even then, tracking tribal money is tough, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. The lack of reporting requirements, the ability of tribes to tap directly into casino revenue and the “tribal loophole” make Indians a powerful special interest and a favorite money source for politicians, Thurber said.

“The lack of reporting requirements throws a veil of secrecy over the arrangements between Indian tribes and candidates,” he said in congressional testimony. “It is perhaps the last frontier of essentially unregulated campaign cash contributions. The problem is a lack of transparency and reporting requirements makes attribution of campaign money difficult, if not impossible. There can be no transparency in this hide-the-ball environment.”

Thurber testified at a hearing held by McCain to consider whether tribes should have to abide by aggregate caps or form PACs to donate to federal campaigns. No legislation made it out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, of which McCain is chairman. A House bill also was killed amid tribal opposition.

Attempts to limit Indian donations are unfair attempts to single out tribes just as they are getting a voice in Congress, Pongrace said.

“It’s almost like as soon as they register on the political radar screen, suddenly they’ve got too much voice,” he said. “It’s like being uppity Native Americans. It’s ridiculous and frankly it’s offensive to see people who finally have a voice being told to shut up.”

SPREADING THE WEALTH

There seems to be little incentive to turn off the tribal money spigot. Though tribes tend to favor Democrats, they also spread their wealth to Republicans.

Overall, about 86 percent of the money donated by Arizona tribes in the last six years has gone to Democratic candidates and committees. The top recipient of money from Arizona tribes is the state Democratic Party, which raked in more than $3 million since the beginning of the 2002 election cycle. That includes money to aid both federal and state candidates, which are made and reported separately.

The state Republican Party received only $140,000 from Arizona tribes in the last six years.

But individual Republican candidates have fared well, too. Hayworth and Renzi are among the top recipients of Indian money, both from Arizona tribes and those outside the state.

Renzi said the loyalty of the Indian tribes is something he had to earn.

About a month after he took office, Renzi toured an Indian hospital in Tuba City and saw three newborns with severe deformities caused by their mothers drinking water tainted with uranium, he said. That instilled a commitment to “go to the wall” on issues like Indian health care and education, Renzi said.

Being a strong advocate of Indian issues also is good politics for Renzi, since more than a fourth of his constituents are American Indians.

“Once you’ve proven yourself, they’re willing to stay with you,” Renzi said of the big bucks he gets from tribes. “They’ve stood with me thick and thin.”

Though Hayworth would not agree to a detailed interview about the influence of Indian money, he did say he supported Indian interests before the money started rolling in.

“From my vantage point, when you are a United States representative, you represent all of the people who sent you there,” Hayworth said. “It doesn’t mean they are going to agree with you on every question, but you represent them. To the extent that people choose to support you, I welcome that support.”

PERSONAL INTEREST

Representatives of Indian communities say they have funneled money to Hayworth and Renzi because they have been among the strongest advocates of Indian issues in Congress.

“To us, J.D. Hayworth stands for fairness and justice, not just for the Indians in his own district but for all American Indians,” said Emily Johnson, director of governmental affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, which is among his top tribal donors. “He is one of the only members of Congress who can discuss tribal sovereignty and Indian law as well as any tribal attorney I know. To have someone as smart and knowledgeable about our issues in Congress is just a godsend for all Indian people, and that’s not something that stops at Arizona’s border.”

The Mille Lacs have given Hayworth $5,000 since the beginning of the current election cycle. That is $800 more than he can accept. Hayworth’s campaign has contacted the tribe to determine whether it wants the balance refunded or applied to the 2008 campaign.

Hayworth has received more than $77,000 from out-of-state tribes this election cycle. His political action committee, TEAM PAC, has received an additional $40,000.

The biggest single expense for TEAM PAC this election is Mary Hayworth’s salary, about $43,000 since January 2005, according to disclosure reports. Her salary accounts for about a third of the money spent by Hayworth’s committee this election.

Known as leadership PACs, committees like TEAM PAC are created by members of Congress so they can spread their money to other candidates, raising their own clout as they jockey for powerful positions like committee chairmanships or a role in their party’s leadership, said Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics.

‘SLUSH FUNDS’

Politicians who control leadership PACs cannot funnel the money into their own campaigns. But they can use it to make donations to other candidates, or pay for their own travel and expenses as they campaign for others.

The committees also provide a place where big-money donors can continue sending checks to their favored candidates after reaching the limit of what can be donated to an individual campaign, Ritsch said.

For instance, the Gila River community has donated the maximum allowed in the current election to Hayworth, and an additional $800 for his 2008 campaign. The tribe also gave $5,000 to TEAM PAC.

“They can really become slush funds for the members that control them,” Ritsch said of the committees. “Leadership PACs provide a way for big donors to have even greater influence with the politician. Whether you give to the campaign account or you give to the leadership PAC, it all benefits the politicians that control the accounts in some way.”

FAMILY BUSINESS

While some politicians pay their spouses to run their PACs, it’s not typical, and the amount paid to Mary Hayworth is an unusually large chunk of TEAM PAC’s total revenue, Ritsch said.

Harry Mitchell, Hayworth’s Democratic opponent, said he does not begrudge Hayworth the money he gets from tribes, shrugging it off as the power of incumbency.

What troubles Mitchell the most is that Hayworth is using money raised from the tribes through TEAM PAC to pay his wife, making him particularly beholden to Indian interests.

“It probably does have an influence,” Mitchell said. “I just think that’s not a very proper way to do business. Where it comes from is important because people that give big money probably have issues before the very committees he sits on. It’s one thing to have it in a PAC. But if you are going to pay your wife with that money, it becomes a personal interest.”

Mitchell’s only tribal donation is $1,000 from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua in Oregon.

Hayworth and Renzi did break with most of their fellow Republicans earlier this year to oppose legislation that would have curbed the ability of tribes to use newly acquired lands to build casinos. That bill was opposed by virtually every Indian tribe. Killing it was a top priority of groups like the National Indian Gaming Association.

Hayworth and Renzi were the only two Arizona Republicans to oppose the bill, which ultimately failed on a procedural vote. Only 16 Republicans voted against the measure. Arizona Democrats Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva also opposed the bill.

Renzi said he was against the legislation because it would have changed the rules for opening Indian casinos just as the Navajo Nation is preparing to get into gaming.

“The tribes that I represent hadn’t even had a bite at the apple,” Renzi said. “And my tribes are the poorest of the poor in this nation.”

GAMING CONCERNS

Jeff Flake, whose Mesa-based district has no Indian communities, said he does not take donations from tribes that operate casinos because he does not support reservation gaming.

“I don’t want to be accused of being influenced by the gaming money,” he said, adding he does not judge those who do take the donations.

As tribes with casinos pump more money into the political process, Flake worries that gaming issues have come to dominate the Indian agenda in Congress, pushing other needs of the poverty-stricken reservations to second-tier status.

“They tend to roll those issues into the gaming issue, saying we can more easily develop economically — take care of health care needs, take care of education needs — if you loosen the strings in terms of gaming,” Flake said.

Political prowess

Donations by Arizona tribes to political campaigns since the beginning of the 2002 election cycle, from highest amount to lowest: 1) Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community: $1,558,089 2) Gila River Indian Community: $1,337,617 3) Ak-Chin Indian Community: $503,560 4) Tohono O’odham Nation: $444,000 5) Pascua Yaqui Tribe: $285,680 6) Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation: 253,630 7) Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe: $105,000 8) Colorado River Indian Tribes: $72,000 9) Cocopah Tribe: $43,780 10) Quechan Tribe: $15,000 11) San Carlos Apache Tribe: $13,400 12) Yavapai-Apache Nation: $7,500 13) White Mountain Apache Tribe: $4,000 14) Tonto Apache Tribe: $1,000 15) Hualapai Tribe: $250 NOTE: Figures are based on reports of candidates and political committees in Arizona and nationally. Since tribes do not have to file their own disclosure reports, there may be other donations. No campaign donations were found for seven tribes. Totals include contributions to state and federal political committees and candidates, but not the 2002 gaming initiative. SOURCES: Federal Election Commission, Arizona Secretary of State, Political MoneyLine, Center for Responsive Politics, Tribune research.

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