Regulatory Updates

Indian Tribes Not to Blame for Abramoff Scandal

John McCarthy
John McCarthy

by John McCarthy, Executive Director of Minnesota Indian Gaming Association

There is no doubt that the disgraceful conduct of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies has created a firestorm of controversy about the role of lobbying and big money in politics, as well as the impact of influence peddling on public policy decisions. All the possible ramifications of this scandal are difficult to forecast, but one predictable result is already being seen – the vilification of Indian tribes. Recently, a number of columnists have started beating the “blame the victim” drum.

This anti-Indian spin is predictable because practically since the day the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed in 1988, the shameless fraternity of Indian bashers has been busy trying to derail the Indian gaming train. Now the Abramoff scandal gives them a whole new arsenal of tools they can use for that purpose.

Some of the Indian bashers are calling for new federal campaign finance rules that would apply only to Indian tribes. They describe tribes as “special interest groups” and propose restricting their ability to participate in the political process. This is a stunning example of the double standard at work. In 2004, tribal contributions to Congressional campaigns comprised one-third of one percent of the total contributions made, about $7.2 million out of a total $2.05 billion. During the same 2004 election cycle, the defense industry spent $15.6 million, the commercial banking industry spent $31 million, the health care industry spent $73.9 million, and the retirement industry spent $184 million. Where is the outcry about these “special interests?”

Critics of Indian gaming are using the Abramoff affair as an excuse to seek changes in federal law to address the purported “epidemic” of tribal requests for federal recognition. The fact is that only fifteen tribes have received federal recognition since 1978, and only one of those tribes has gaming. Most of those recognition claims had been pending for years, initiated long before Indian gaming was a glimmer in anyone's eye. Sixteen petitions for recognition have been denied since 1978. These facts can be verified by the National Indian Gaming Association, which keeps such records.

The Abramoff scandal has also given Indian bashers cause to rail at the “reservation shopping” they claim is epidemic. In truth, only three off-reservation land-into-trust transactions have been approved since IGRA was passed in 1988. Many of the high-profile proposals for off-reservation gaming expansion have been initiated not by tribes but by neighboring cities, state governments or private companies seeking to partner with tribes on casinos to solve their own economic problems. In these cases, the tribes are not “reservation shopping” – others are “Indian shopping.” And IGRA, which most of its critics apparently haven't read, already has provisions to deal with those efforts.

Most disturbingly, tribal participation in the political process has precipitated outraged demands for changes to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). One Michigan congressman even went so far as to promote a moratorium on new tribal casinos, as though that action has any relevance to the Abramoff issue. He must feel that this would somehow punish the tribes.

It seems that those who are demanding changes to IGRA haven't even read the bill. Many assert that IGRA gave tribes the right to conduct gaming. That's not true. Tribes, as sovereign nations, already had the right to conduct gaming, as the Supreme Court confirmed in the 1987 California v. Cabazon decision. In fact, IGRA actually curtailed tribal sovereignty by requiring tribes to enter into compacts with states before they could open casinos.

Many people also mistakenly believe that IGRA enabled tribes to operate casinos in states that did not otherwise allow gaming. Not true. The Cabazon decision confirmed the right of tribes to conduct gaming in states where gaming was already legal in some form, such as lotteries, pari-mutuel wagering, casino gambling for charity purposes, and so on. The court held that tribes could not be denied the right to gamble on tribal lands if others in the state were allowed to gamble under existing state law. In states such as Utah, where there is absolutely no legalized gambling of any kind, there is no Indian gaming either, despite the presence of several tribes within the state's boundaries.

The Indian bashers like to claim that they oppose Indian gaming and IGRA because some tribes are benefiting more than others. Again, they ignore reality. Indian gaming was intended as an economic development tool for Indian communities. Indian reservations are, in the vast majority of cases, located where the government put them. That means some are near major markets and some aren't. Some tribal casinos do better than others. This is the way capitalism works. Are the critics suggesting that we should establish some form of communism in Indian Country to make up for the unpredictability of geography? They weren't proposing communism thirty years ago, when some Indian reservations still didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity. Where was the demand for “equal benefits” then?

There are 560 Indian tribes in the United States, 224 of which operate casinos. Only six tribes dealt with Jack Abramoff. These tribes didn't invent our campaign finance system - Congress did. As long as our democracy runs on the “pay to play” principle, we can expect more Abramoff scandals in the future. If the rules of campaign finance are going to change, they should change for everyone, not just Indian tribes.

The bottom line is that tribes are being set up as the scapegoats in the Abramoff affair and a handful of irresponsible journalists are fanning the flames. Members of Congress, many of whom have benefited from Abramoff's criminal largess, are desperate to shift the focus - and the blame - away from themselves. Republicans fear that this issue will cost them the majority in 2006 Congressional elections, so their strategy is obvious: find someone else to blame. Who better than Indians, who are already resented by so many for their gaming success?

The tribes that hired Jack Abramoff committed no crime; they merely trusted someone who shouldn't have been trusted. No court has suggested that these tribes are in any way culpable for Abramoff's appallingly unethical conduct. By ordering Abramoff to pay restitution to his tribal clients, the courts have recognized these tribes as the victims, not the villains. Let's stop blaming Indian tribes for the indefensible actions of a handful of sleazy lobbyists and the ethically challenged politicians who compete for their favors.

John McCarthy is Executive Director of Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (218) 751-0560 or email gamingassoc@charter.net