Abramoff Indian Deal Haunts Stabenow

What do Michigan’s Democratic senators do when the Department of Interior declines to administer a $3 million grant to one of the state’s wealthy casino-owning Indian tribes?

If you are Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin or Rep. Dave Camp (R.-Mich.), you threaten to earmark it if it’s not specially designated with a line-item in the appropriations process.

After writing a letter in January asking 2003 asking former Secretary of Interior Gale N. Norton to authorize $3 million for the Saginaw Chippewa, the three wrote another one to the secretary in July that said: “If this matter is not resolved in the very near future, an alternative path will need to be taken to rectify this situation, such as asking our respective Chairman and Ranking Members to earmark the tribal construction amount in the FY 04 Interior Appropriations bill.”

Both letters were copied to Senators Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) and Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.), who sit on the committee.

The Saginaw Chippewa had employed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help get the money. The Democrats’ January letter to Norton said another one of Abramoff’s clients, the Mississippi Choctaw, was the first tribe to use a special program that allowed tribes to apply for federal funds for school projects if the tribe proves it is able to finance half the project.

The Associated Press reported Abramoff’s team was lobbying to extend the program for the Saginaw Chippewa and that the tribe paid him and his associate Michael Scanlon more than $14 million between 2001 and 2003.

The grant had been previously refused because the tribe, which owns Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., was considered too wealthy to be eligible for the money.

In their second letter the trio acknowledged that earmarking the money would be unusual. They wrote “While we realize this is not customary within this particular program, there may be no other option than to pursue this strategy.”

Burns, who is up for re-election this year, has been attacked by Democrats in his home state for supporting the earmark. After Abramoff pled guilty to a Justice Department corruption probe, Burns has returned more than $140,000 received from Abramoff-connected money. Burns has maintained he was not influenced by Abramoff to add the earmark and that he was acting on behalf of the Michigan senators who were actively seeking the money.

Democrats involved in the deal have remained largely unscathed, but last month Stabenow quietly amended her campaign finance reports to reflect a closer connection with Abramoff. She had previously reported she was given two separate checks for $2,000 in 2002 and 2003 from a man named Christopher Petras. The Detroit Free Press has reported he was a lobbyist for the tribe. She changed her reports to show that she was given the money directly from the Saginaw Chippewa, not Petras. Stabenow’s campaign manager Tom Russell attributed the error to “a glitch in filing the report that was corrected.”

The Hill reported in April that Stabenow had thanked Burns for his work to get the grant on the Senate floor in statements made on Jan. 23, 2003. She told Burns, “Thank you for all of your cooperation and hard work on this legislation.”

Last month, the tribe decided to return the money to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In a public statement, the council said it “voted not to move forward with construction of the school, because it is not financially prudent to pursue this project at this time.”

Sen. Tim Johnson (D.-S.D) is now asking that the Bureau of Indian Affairs give the $3 million the Saginaw Chippewa returned to the Cow Creek Tribal School located in Buffalo County, S.D.