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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Buying a Congressman

Tribes persistently court Tracy Republican Richard Pombo, and vice versa. The tribes have money. Pombo has power. Both have political and legislative needs. The resulting relationships remain a work in progress, though they already have crowded the Capitol Hill calendar and caused some eyebrows to rise.

Tribes persistently court Tracy Republican Richard Pombo, and vice versa.

The tribes have money. Pombo has power. Both have political and legislative needs. The resulting relationships remain a work in progress, though they already have crowded the Capitol Hill calendar and caused some eyebrows to rise.

“Most of these issues, Congress hadn’t dealt with before,” Pombo said in an interview. “I decided, I’m going to get this stuff done. It’s created some controversy, but I decided I was going to take this on.”

From the day he became chairman of the House Resources Committee in January 2003, Pombo assumed considerable stature in what’s often called Indian Country. He vowed to devote more attention to American Indian issues than his predecessors, and by some measures he has succeeded.

At least nine tribe-related bills have passed through Pombo’s committee and secured President Bush’s signature, covering issues from health care in rural North Dakota to water rights in Arizona. A Sacramento field hearing in June was one of five held so far on proposed tribal gambling legislation.

He likewise convened multiple hearings into Indian trust accounts and tribal recognition disputes, among others. He boosted the committee’s Indian affairs staff and is currently circulating a much-kibitzed draft bill regulating the lucrative Indian gaming industry.

It’s work that has taken the 13-year congressional veteran well beyond the confines of Ripon, Escalon, Manteca and other cities in his congressional district.

“The biggest thing for me,” Pombo said, “is to try to get some of these issues done.”

Tribes, in turn, have noticed. So have their lobbyists. And so, too, have some of Pombo’s political opponents.

Certainly, tribal issues open a window into how Congress works. They showcase the role of personal relationships, the prevalence of money, the maneuvering of lobbyists, the complexities of policy and the periodic uprising of controversy.

No one is more controversial on Capitol Hill right now than former tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A one-time Hollywood producer, Abramoff as a lobbyist collected a reported $66 million from tribes. He has been indicted on unrelated charges in Florida, where his former business partner pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges, and he is facing further Justice Department investigation into his Capitol Hill dealings.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has conducted three high-profile oversight hearings this year probing Abramoff’s alleged machinations. Pombo has no plans for similar investigations, explaining that he didn’t “really see the value” of holding separate House hearings.

That frustrates some.

“One of the core responsibilities of the committee is to the Indian tribes,” Martinez Democrat George Miller, a senior member of the panel, said in an interview. “There hasn’t been any interest in serious investigative oversight (even though) … you have a very significant public record of the abuse of the tribes, and a misuse of the tribal resources.”

In recent days, though, Pombo did decide to follow the lead taken by some fellow Republicans and shed himself of $7,000 in contributions made directly by Abramoff. Pombo gave the money to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, a Minnesota tribe devastated by a teenager’s shooting rampage earlier this year.

“To avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the chairman felt this money should be spent on a worthy Native American cause,” committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said.

With the Resources Committee covering issues from irrigation water and public lands to energy production and tribal affairs, the committee can become a lobbyist magnet. Their attentions take different forms.

Just before Christmas of 2003, for instance, several former Pombo staffers-turned-lobbyists hosted a holiday reception for Pombo’s committee staff at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. In response to questions, Kennedy said Pombo and his wife, Annette, briefly stopped by at the restaurant, called Signature’s, before heading off to a White House gathering.

The committee staffers then remained behind to party at a restaurant where steaks could cost $36 or more and where Republican lawmakers like Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach frequently enjoyed complimentary meals. Abramoff himself, though, was not present at the event.

The Christmas party was not, specifically, a tribal lobbying event. It was political good cheer; the kind of event that’s helpful, in general, for sustaining good relationships. Lobbyists can do this in many ways.

In 2000, even before Pombo became committee chairman, records show his then-press secretary, Doug Heye, attended three World Wrestling Federation events at Abramoff’s luxury skybox in Washington. Heye’s attendance at the April 30 WWF Backlash Live, Aug. 6 WWF Attitude and Oct. 2 Raw is War events was first noted by the Talking Points Memo web site and was independently confirmed by the Fresno Bee.

Heye was friends with several lobbyists working with Abramoff who treated him to the wrestling shows. It’s the kind of event, noted one knowledgeable staffer, that’s mostly social but where political talk easily arises as well. Now press secretary for North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, Heye declined to comment publicly on the events.

There are other, more direct, ways for tribes to get their points of view across.

Like other business interests, tribes sponsor fact-finding trips for congressional staffers. Since 2003, House records show, various tribes and Indian gaming organizations have spent about $17,600 for several House Resources Committee staffers to travel to a variety of reservations, conferences and trade shows. These included, for instance, a four-day tribe-sponsored trip in August 2003 that brought two of Pombo’s staffers to Sacramento Valley reservations.

“This visit has really been an eye-opener,” staffer Thomas Brierton told the California Nations Indian Gaming Association’s newsletter at the time.

Staffers consider such outside-the-Beltway trips to be essential in understanding the highly complex issues they confront _ and few are as vexing as the gambling operations conducted by some 367 Indian tribes nationwide, including 42 in California.

Pombo is now circulating a draft bill to regulate so-called “reservation shopping” by tribes trying to build casinos far from their original land. It would stop tribes from building casinos on land taken into trust in other states; it would also establish new “Indian Economic Opportunity Zones” designed to serve tribes that don’t have casinos.

Reflecting the myriad, competing interests at work, Pombo’s effort is getting mixed reviews. Some, like the Tehama County-based Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians of California, support Pombo’s efforts to curtail off-reservation gaming.

But the proposed restrictions also could end up protecting from competition those tribes that already have built their casinos. The National Indian Gaming Association, among others, has raised pointed concerns.

One thing tribes seem to agree on is the wisdom of political muscle.

The casino-operating Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians had never given money to Pombo before he became committee chairman. Two days after their then-lobbyist Abramoff contributed $2,000 to Pombo’s campaign committee in January 2003, public records show, the Mississippi Band followed suit with its own $2,000 contribution.

That cracked a door that since has been flung wide open.

Tribes have since contributed $210,500 to Pombo’s political action committee, which he uses to assist other Republican candidates. Tribes contributed an additional $106,000 to Pombo’s campaign committee.