On Thursday, March 3, Montana Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee asking for an investigation into whether Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., acted under the influence of bribery when he oversaw the allocation of $3 million in federal grant money to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan as chairman of the Department of the Interior’s appropriations subcommittee. The money was allocated in the 2004 federal spending bill after Burns was told the tribe’s proposal didn’t meet the grant requirements of the Indian School Equalization Program (ISEP). According to the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance—a government-run compendium of federal assistance programs—the grant’s funds “may not be used for construction.”
Instead, as ISEP’s title suggests, the grant was developed to help bring existing schools in poor condition up to snuff.
The Saginaw Chippewa, one of the nation’s wealthiest tribes, own and operate the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort—“Michigan’s only four-diamond casino” according to the casino website—in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. Upcoming casino events include expensive-to-book performances by the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Alicia Keys and Bob Dylan. The Detroit Free Press reports that each adult tribal member receives $78,000 a year and each child receives $12,000 a year in casino profits.
In her 2005 State of the Tribe address, quoted in the tribal newspaper The Tribal Observer, Saginaw Chippewa Chief Audrey Falcon said, “It is amazing when we look to the truth and we know our tribe continues to remain debt-free when 75 percent of major corporations in the U.S. can’t match the measure of success the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe enjoys.”
Given the wealth of the Chippewa, why did Sen. Burns approve a $3 million allocation to the tribe for a new school when so many tribes across the country—and in Montana—are struggling to maintain their own rickety educational infrastructure?
Ream thinks the answer might lie with the man hired by the Saginaw Chippewa as a lobbyist: Jack Abramoff.
The Washington Post reported last week that Abramoff and his non-Montana tribal clients have donated $137,000 in “soft money” to Burns’ political action and campaign committees since 2000, accounting for 42 percent of Burns’ total soft money donations from 2000 to 2002. $20,000 of that money came from the Saginaw Chippewas, according to the Washington, D.C., beltway publication Roll Call.
“Is it a coincidence that the tribe was a client of Mr. Abramoff?” Ream asks in his letter to the Senate Ethics Committee. “Is it a coincidence that Mr. Abramoff, his associates and wealthy tribal clients made $137,000 in campaign contributions to Senator Burns’ ‘soft money’ corporation prior to the appropriation? Is it a coincidence that Mr. Abramoff and his team arranged for Senator Burns’ chief of staff and an appropriations staffer to take a private jet to New Orleans for a trip to the 2002 Super Bowl? And is it a coincidence that this sort of conduct is now all under the scrutiny of an investigation by several federal agencies, not the least of which is the FBI?”
The appropriations staffer Ream alluded to is Ryan Thomas, who the Post reports “took the lead” in securing the Saginaw Chippewa school funding.
U.S. law prohibits a senator or an employee of the legislative branch from accepting “anything of value” from a person doing business with the federal government, which, by the definition of “lobbyist,” Abramoff was at the time. For this reason, Ream contends that it was illegal for Burns’ staffers to accept the trip to the Super Bowl on a private jet.
Not so, says Burns’ Press Secretary J.P. Donovan, because the trip was offered not by Abramoff but by one of his tribal clients.
“Based on what I know, the trip was not from a lobbyist but from a tribe, which would be a sovereign entity, and is therefore bound by separate ethics rules,” Donovan says.
The Post, however, reports that the trip was sponsored by Suncruz, a Florida-based casino cruise line then owned by Abramoff and partners.
Donovan says the call for an ethics investigation is purely a political maneuver on the part of state Democrats who may hope to gain some advantage before Burns’ 2006 re-election campaign.
“We’re in a political cycle,” Donovan says. “Bob Ream’s just political grandstanding.”
Whatever the motivation for Ream’s letter, it seems unlikely that an investigation will move forward in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate if that body acts the way the Republican-led House did when faced with ethics violation charges against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Republican leaders responded in that case by eliminating a rule requiring representatives indicted by a grand jury to temporarily step aside, ousting House Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and appointing a new chairman who has since fired all the top staffers from the DeLay investigation, leading Hefley to tell the Denver Post that the situation looks “very much like a purge.”
Ethics complaints aside, the Saginaw Chippewa nonetheless received $3 million for their new school; the tribe had originally asked for a federal matching grant of almost $5 million, but when told that only $3 million would be available, decided to go ahead with the project anyway, assuming a share of the financial burden greater than 50 percent. Despite the apparent abundance of Saginaw Chippewa money for the project, Donovan says, “I want to completely dispel the notion that this is a wealthy tribes versus poor tribes issue. There is no means-testing to determine which tribes are eligible, period. All tribes are created equal in funding.”
“Means testing or not, that’s not the intent of the program,” Ream says, arguing that Sen. Burns’ appropriation skirted ISEP. “To give $3 million to a tribe that’s one of the wealthiest in the country when we have seven here in Montana that are in poverty is unconscionable, particularly for a Montana senator.” firstname.lastname@example.org