A simmering battle between
factions of a Native American tribe in Iowa has raised
new questions about the dealings of tribal lobbyist
Jack Abramoff, his relationship with a conservative
advocacy group and donations to members of Congress,
RAW STORY has learned.
During a leadership dispute in 2003, a faction of the
Iowa Meskwaki tribe seized control of the tribe’s
casino and hired Abramoff’s firm to represent
them in Washington. The tribe’s former leaders
have questioned whether Abramoff-linked donations made
to Iowa’s senators and their political action
committees influenced their actions during the conflict.
Iowa’s senators stress that they never took sides
in the dispute. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic
Sen. Tom Harkin say donations from the lobbyists and
Abramoff’s clients in 2003 and 2004—which
total more than $50,000—had no bearing on their
actions. Sen. Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Finance
Committee, is currently investigating Abramoff’s
The new leadership of the tribe has also revealed that
they gave $50,000 to an organization founded by Secretary
of the Interior Gale Norton. The group has come under
scrutiny for allegedly pressuring Interior to favor
In conversations with RAW
STORY, each faction highlighted different aspects
of tribe’s dealings with Abramoff and put new
focus on political contributions made during and after
the leadership struggle.
Factions vie for control
In late 2002, a Meskwaki faction led by Homer Bear
Jr. circulated a petition to recall the tribe’s
elected leadership, led by a man named Alex Walker.
After several months during which the tribal council
refused to hold new elections, Bear’s faction
seized the tribe’s $3 million-a week casino and
had a relative of a long-dead tribal chief—a janitor—appoint
Bear and his associates as the new leaders.
The Walker council – led by Alex Walker had been
elected in 2001, defeating members of the Bear faction.
The fight came to a head after Walker dismissed members
of the tribe’s gaming commission, and members
of the Bear faction commandeered the casino and the
For two months, the appointed Bear council controlled
the Tama County casino. But when the U.S. Department
of Interior said they could only recognize leaders elected
under the tribe’s constitution in May 2003, officials
shuttered the facility and froze federal aid to the
That same month, Washington lobbyists Jack Abramoff
and his associate Michael Smith made contact with the
Bear faction offering his services. In the months that
followed, with aid from the lobbyists and encouragement
from Iowa’s senators Grassley and Harkin, Interior
reversed their position, certifying new elections won
by the appointed Bear council.
After federal marshals closed the casino, Grassley
and Harkin sought to mediate. The two senators assert
that they sought only to end a year-long standoff over
control of the tribe and the closure of its casino,
which left more than 1,200 people jobless and jeopardized
basic social services.
Walker and his allies say they turned away a petition
recalling their leadership because tribal members said
they had been intimidated or duped. Walker, however,
has produced only two affidavits from members who said
they’d wanted their names removed.
Though neither senator took a position, Walker sees
the senators’ intervention as supporting Bear.
In pushing Interior to hold new elections, he believes
the senators tacitly endorsed the takeover of the casino
and the appointment of new leaders outside of the process
prescribed in the tribal constitution.
“I don’t think anybody would stand for
a bunch of senators taking over the White House, or
a bunch of the state legislators taking over the governor,
saying [it was] because you didn’t take the advice
of the attorney general,” Walker said. “Nobody
wanted to arrest these guys. Nobody said they were breaking
Donations made to group founded
by cabinet secretary
The machinations which legitimized Bear’s control
of the casino—and the Meskwaki tribe—are
as complex as they are heated. RAW
STORY’s examination has found large contributions
to campaigns and a questionable lobby group; dedicated
resolve from two U.S. senators to resolve a conflict
that left many jobless; and an internecine feud fought
tooth and nail for control of an Indian tribe.
Tom Jochum, a spokesman for the Bear council, revealed
last week that Bear gave $50,000 during the dispute
to a group founded by Gale Norton, who by 2003 was Secretary
of the Interior, the cabinet agency which oversees tribal
“It was Abramoff’s suggestion,” Jochum
recalls, saying the lobbyist remarked, “if you
want to be a player in Washington, [the group’s
leader] is extremely close to Gale Norton.”
Jochum’s disclosure raises the amount of known
tribal donations to Norton’s former advocacy group,
Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, to
$300,000. He calls the donation “regrettable.”
“If I had to take one thing back, that I was
involved with, that would have been it,” he said.
Emails obtained by the Washington Post show
that Abramoff used a contact at Norton’s former
group to pressure Interior regarding tribal decisions.
A Norton spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
Lobbyists donate to members
involved in resolving dispute
Walker also questions donations made to Sen. Grassley
and his Hawkeye political action committee.
Bank statements obtained by Walker’s group show
that Bear’s council wrote checks to Grassley and
Hawkeye during the period they were seeking recognition
from Interior. One of the donations—a $5,000 check
to Hawkeye—was paired with a $5,000 donation made
by Abramoff on the same day, according to the Center
for Responsive Politics.
Reports from the Hawkeye treasurer also reveal that
the PAC received $8,000 from two other tribes, both
Jochum confirmed that the Bear council had also written
a $4,000 check to Grassley’s campaign in July
2003. He called the donation “a drop in the bucket,”
saying that it “pales in comparison to the millions
of dollars that the Walker council spent trying to regain
Grassley’s office says Abramoff’s then-firm,
Greenberg Traurig, hosted a reception in Chicago with
Sonnenschein, another law firm, for the senator’s
campaign committee that month.
Asked whether Grassley conversed with Abramoff about
the Iowa tribe, Kozeny said, “Senator Grassley
doesn’t remember a conversation.”
Grassley’s Hawkeye PAC received numerous donations
from Abramoff’s former firm during the dispute
and into 2004 when the senator worked to get a $5.5
million grant for a new tribal high school.
During the dispute, Abramoff and another member of
the firm gave $6,000 to Grassley’s campaign committee,
which was paired with a $4,000 contribution from the
Bear faction. The Saginaw Chippewa, another of Abramoff’s
clients, gave $5,000 to Hawkeye in October of that year.
On Dec. 31, 2003, the day the casino reopened under
the Bear council’s leadership, three members of
the firm gave $250 to Hawkeye. Four other Greenberg
Traurig employees gave $2,750 the following year.
No known members of the lobbying firm connected to
the Meskwaki account gave money to Harkin’s PAC
during the leadership battle. Smith, who signed off
on Greenberg Traurig’s lobbying disclosure forms,
wrote a $5,000 check to Harkin’s PAC in June of
the following year, and gave $5,000 to Harkin shortly
before the casino was seized.
The Bear council has also called attention the role
of Lowell Junkins, a former Iowa legislator who asked
Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) to weigh in for the Walker
council. Boswell did write a letter to Interior, though
he too says he did not take sides.
Junkins collected a $1.6 million arbitration-mediated
settlement when the Walker was given access to tribal
accounts in mid-2003. Walker says the payment was a
debt owed Junkins for his services; Jochum says Junkins
defrauded the tribe.
Grassley, Harkin begged for
Some 1,281 Iowans lost their jobs when federal marshals
closed the casino. The closure—and the decision
by Interior to terminate federal aid—put critical
tribal needs like healthcare and child welfare in danger.
“For these federal agencies to remain uninvolved
in resolving this dispute is unacceptable,” Grassley
said in a June 2003 statement. “It is amazing
to me that these agencies have stood idly by as over
1,000 area residents have lost their jobs.”
Both of Iowa’s senators penned letters to Interior
Secretary Gale Norton and the National Indian Gaming
Commission begging they help to resolve the standoff.
“At this point,” Sen. Grassley wrote Norton
in June, 2003, “it appears that only a special
election, held in accordance with the tribal constitution
and recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will
bring final resolution to this matter.”
Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Sen. Grassley, stressed
that the senator did not take sides. She provided RAW
STORY with a list of individuals the senator or
his staff met with in efforts to get the casino reopened,
which included the attorneys from both sides.
Among those the senator’s staff met was Todd
Boulanger, an Abramoff lobbyist who is said to have
drafted a letter signed by House Majority Leader Tom
DeLay (R-TX) encouraging Interior to intervene in a
manner favoring another Abramoff client.
Grassley press Secretary Beth Levine said the senator
“did not use any letters written by Todd Boulanger
when working on this issue for his constituents.”
Kozeny added the senator did not meet with anyone from
Interior but did place a call to Indian Affairs; she
said the acting head returned the senator’s call
and spoke with a member of his staff.
Grassley’s office stated that Greenberg Traurig
held fundraisers for the senator and his campaign committee
in 2004. A March 2004 event was held in Miami for Grassley’s
campaign, and a July 2004 fundraiser for his PAC was
held in Washington. Kozeny says Abramoff was at neither
event, and notes that Abramoff had left the firm by
Abramoff “has organized fundraisers for Senator
Grassley in the past,” Abramoff spokesman Andrew
Investigation of Abramoff continues;
Grassley leads push
Despite donations from Abramoff and his associates,
Sen. Grassley, along with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has
championed an investigation into Abramoff’s lobbying
activities. On Tuesday, Grassley’s Finance Committee
expressed concerns that Abramoff was not being cooperative.
Asked whether the senator had concerns about leading
an investigation into someone who had repeatedly raised
money for his campaign, Kozeny said no.
“Absolutely not,” she said. The investigation
“demonstrates that Sen. Grassley accepts campaign
contributions that are legal with no strings attached,
and he conducts his Senate business, oversight and good
government work without regard to campaign contributions.”
Kozeny notes that the senator has taken money from
special interests in the past and voted against the
donor’s wishes. Grassley supports reimportation
of prescription drugs from Canada—a measure the
industry opposes—despite having received more
than $87,000 from pharmaceutical and health product
firms during his last campaign.
Sen. McCain, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee,
is spearheading an investigation into Abramoff’s
activities as they relate to Indian tribes.
A member close to the deposed Walker council says McCain
staffers told them there are additional emails written
by Abramoff or his associates that name their tribe.
McCain’s spokeswoman would neither confirm nor
deny the assertion, saying she is unable to comment
on pending investigations.
Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum said questions about
political donations or the use of funds should be made
of the groups that made and received the donations.
“Mr. Abramoff and his team provided recommendations
on where a tribe should spend its political dollars,
but ultimately the tribal council made the final decision
on what political contributions to make,” Blum
said. “Questions regarding the ultimate use of
those funds can only be answered by the recipient organization
or entity, not by Mr. Abramoff.”
Three of the lobbyists that Jochum says the tribe worked
with have exited Abramoff’s lobby firm, Greenberg
Abramoff left the company in March 2004 amid a Senate
probe. Kevin Ring departed that October after revelations
that he had accepted $135,000 from Abramoff’s
partner Michael Scanlon, a former press secretary to
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Smith, who was
scrutinized for $20,000 said linked to Scanlon and ultimately
absolved by the firm, left in January.
“Mike Smith, and Kevin Ring, and other members
of that firm, did remarkable work for the tribe,”
Jochum said. “Their lobbying efforts brought five
times as much money to the tribe as the tribe paid them.
Their efforts in Washington helped lead to a democratic
solution to what was a constitutional crisis.”
Smith, who hails from Iowa, has had a longstanding
relationship with Sen. Harkin and was Gore’s Midwest
campaign manager in 2000. His sister was recently hired
by Harkin as a legislative aide. Reached by phone, Smith
declined to comment.
Harkin’s spokeswoman Alison Dobson said the Democrat
had sought only to bring a resolution.
“What Sen. Harkin did in the Meskwaki tribal
dispute was the best thing for the Meskwaki people and
the best thing for the state of Iowa,” Dobson
said. “He made sure that there were free and fair
elections and encouraged both sides to work in good
Money matters; Costs of lobbying
While the competing councils duked it out, their lobbyists
and lawyers profited. Abramoff’s firm pocketed
$75,000 a month—some $300,000 in 2003, and another
$900,000 in 2004. Meanwhile, Walker’s attorneys
saw hundreds of thousands in fees of their own—more
than $300,000 in one month alone when his council was
allowed access to the tribe’s accounts in mid-2003.
Walker and Jochum each tell an extraordinary story.
Jochum accuses Walker of seeking kickbacks; Walker says
Jochum tried to extort him. Neither agrees on much,
save the ferocity of the fight.
Tribal accounts, provided to RAW
STORY by Walker’s allies, show that $400,000
in hundred dollar bills was withdrawn from an account
opened by the Bear faction shortly before the first
elections in May and four days after the National Indian
Gaming Commission ordered the casino to be closed.
Jochum said he didn’t know about the withdrawal.
Betsey McCloskey, a casino spokeswoman, did not return
a call seeking comment.
Walker’s faction also questions large wire transfers
made by the Bear faction during the dispute. Jochum
says the transfers weren’t significant, noting
the Walker council had their time in court and had lost
on repeated occasions.
“If there’s a suspicion of money or expenditures
they can go to the National Indian Gaming Board in Iowa,”
Since the Bear council took control, Jochum has also
seen an increase in receipts. Under Walker, Jochum was
paid less than $100,000 a year; now he makes $25,000
a month. Jochum says he now employs three people to
assist his efforts.
Walker questions Jochum’s expenses.
“I think it’s a sham,” Walker said.
“He doesn’t really need a staff. When I
had a lobbyist, I paid my lobbyist $40,000 a year and
he did an adequate job.”
Jochum defends his fees. He says he helped pass the
strongest Indian child welfare act in the country, and
notes that with the aid of Abramoff’s firm, the
tribe got a $5.5 million grant to build a new high school.
Jochum expressed disgust that so much money had been
spent by the Walker side, including legal fees, security
expenses and the Junkins settlement. He called the Walker
faction “corrupt punks.”
“These guys were corrupt,” Jochum, a lobbyist
for the tribe, said. “Look at the results of the
election. Even the Board of Indian Affairs, when they
came in and both sides agreed… our three guys
were the top vote getters.”
Walker continues to appeal. He says he believes lobbyists
are “fleecing” Indian tribes.
“The crux of problem – you have all these
people that know there is a quick buck to be made,”
he added. “They’re pretty smooth talkers
– but we’re talking about uneducated people…
American Indians need to be educated; they’re
probably the most undereducated group in the United
Asked about lobbyists’ aid in obtaining a grant
for a new high school, Walker admits that tribes and
lobbyists may continue to enjoy a tenuous marriage of
“The bottom line is money talks, and if that’s
what it takes, maybe that’s the route to go,”
he concluded. “But I would hire somebody that
has a solid reputation, somebody that’s got integrity
and honesty and isn’t just out to screw the tribes.”
report was edited by Larisa Alexandrovna. Muriel Kane
contributed research to the report.
Article originally published Apr. 21, 2005.