From 2004 to 2006, Washington was transfixed by the revelations that several Indian tribes had paid exorbitant fees to then-uber lobbyist Jack Abramoff to stop other tribes from opening casinos that might siphon gamblers away from their own operations.
Ten years and little has changed. Since 2009, the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) in Arizona has spent nearly $11 million on lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would prevent the Tohono O’odham Nation from opening a competing casino. A sister tribe, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, also with casinos in the Phoenix area, has dropped a couple million dollars more on the fight.
That’s a lot of money spent in service of an issue that most Americans care nothing about. Two Arizona members of Congress, Rep. Paul Gosar and Sen. John McCain, keep the issue bubbling. The question is why.
For Gosar, the issue makes little political sense. The Tea Party Republican has spoken often of the sanctity of land rights, writing on his own website that the freedom to exploit and enjoy one’s own property is an issue “upon which America was founded.’’
But sometimes cash trumps politics: the Center for Responsive Politics reports he relies heavily on political donations from casino interests - $50,750 in the past four years.
McCain’s support of anti-Tohono legislation is more puzzling. According to local officials in Phoenix, he vowed several years ago not to take sides in the squabble.
Sen. McCain has decried the “grinding poverty” that suffuses many reservations and, partnering with his mentor, Rep. Mo Udall, wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 after the Supreme Court held states can’t control gambling on reservations. Although he claimed to have qualms about the development of Indian casinos, he acknowledged that when tribes “are faced with only one option for economic development, and that is to set up gambling on their reservations, then I cannot disapprove.”
Once sympathetic to the Tohono’s plight, McCain’s tune has changed. After long refraining from taking a position on the matter, last August he introduced legislation to kill the Tohono casino. This year, he’s back with another bill.
Between 2004 and 2006, McCain held hearings in which he railed against Jack Abramoff and others who had exploited Indian tribes. He was viewed as a hero to the Indian community and hailed for taking on powerful lobbying interests. The truth, however, is that the senator’s actual record on Indian gaming is more complicated. A 2008 New York Times article revealed that McCain has weighed in both for and against Indian gaming, seemingly based more on his personal relationships than on policy.
According to the Times, in 2005, when a small tribe sought to build what would have been the third tribal casino in Connecticut, McCain stepped in as a favor to his friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), helping persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to rescind the tribe’s recognition. In addition, although McCain had gone on record opposing “off-reservation” casinos and pushed the Bush administration to rewrite the rules governing them, a California tribe planning such a casino – in which McCain friend, former Sen. William Cohen (R-ME) had invested – hired a long-time friend of the senator and the tribe’s application was approved.
Even the Abramoff investigation was piqued by people with strong connections to McCain. At a Democratic lobbyist’s suggestion, the Saginaw Chippewa hired Republican lobbyist Scott Reed, who frequently boasted of his access to McCain.
More recently, the Salt River tribe hired an obscure Washington lobby shop called First Strategic to push the anti-Tohono legislation. With less than $1 million in annual lobbying revenue and a staff of six lobbyists, First Strategic derives about one-third of its revenue from the Salt River contract. The tiny influence shop has one asset the big K Street firms can’t match - a man named Wes Gullett.
Gullett lives in Phoenix, not Washington. But he has one good friend in Congress: John McCain. According to the Times, Gullett has known McCain for more than 40 years. He was a senior adviser on McCain’s 1992 senatorial and 2000 presidential campaign and his wife, Deb, is McCain’s former chief of staff, state director, and served on the national finance committee for his 2008 presidential bid.
The McCains and Gulletts are close socially: the wives are said to be best friends, while The New York Times reports that the husbands often go on gambling junkets together. In 2006, the Times said, when Gullett needed to find a gambling loophole for a client, a California Indian tribe that wanted to build an off-reservation gambling hall outside of San Francisco, McCain happily obliged.
Perhaps the lesson in this instance is one that Abramoff knew all too well: If the Tohono hopes to build a casino, it should hire a friend of Sen, McCain.
Melanie Sloan, a partner with Triumph Strategy, previously served as the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which helped expose Jack Abramoff’s web of corruption.