DNC offers funds back But Indian tribe won't take $107,000 it gave from welfare money

'They want their land'

White House meeting to discuss title had been offered

March 12, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from President Clinton, the Democratic National Committee offered last night to return to an impoverished Oklahoma Indian tribe a $107,000 donation that had been solicited by overly aggressive party fund-raisers.

But the Indian tribal leaders, who had contributed the money in the hope of getting back some long-lost tribal land, indicated last night that they did not want the money returned.

"They gave it from their heart, and just because poor people are poor doesn't mean they don't want to be involved," said Rick Grellner, an attorney for the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe of central Oklahoma. "The tribe is not asking for their money back. They want their land."

Clinton was described by aides as troubled and angry, especially after he read that the Indians' contribution had come out of a fund that the tribe set aside for its neediest. The president ordered a high-level review of the circumstances surrounding the DNC's solicitation of the tribe.

Last night, the DNC announced its offer after an emergency meeting called by its co-chairmen, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado and Steve Grossman. The DNC is the subject of scrutiny for its questionable fund-raising activity in 1995 and 1996.

Charles Surveyor, chairman of the Cheyenne-Arapho tribal council, told DNC officials that he did not want the money back. Today, Surveyor will poll the other six members of the tribal council, but the chairman's views are expected to be shared.

One council member, Archie D. Hoffman, said last night that he was "insulted" by the offer to return the money. A complicating factor was a public demand the night before by Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, for the DNC to return the money. The Indians blame Nickles for blocking an earlier congressional attempt to return the Indians' land.

Whether the land is returned is apparently up to the Clinton administration, which was embarrassed by the public flap this week. One DNC official who asked not to be named said, "When I read about this one, it made me a little sick to my stomach."

That has been the common reaction of those who figured in the episode as well, including Nathan Landow, a Bethesda developer who is a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. Landow has come under criticism for his dealings with the tribe.

"The tribe has gotten bad advice internally -- I mean, to take money out of a welfare fund is not the right thing -- but the people who solicited the money are the ones who ought to be really taken to task," Landow said in a telephone interview yesterday from Colorado. "They were snookered."

The episode is rooted in a dispute between the federal government and the Cheyenne-Arapaho. The tribe of some 11,000 people once held title to 52 million acres. Today, they own fewer than 10,000 acres of mostly scrub and mesquite-infested prairie near El Reno, Okla. Their jobless rate ranges up to 80 percent, their median income is around $3,500, and alcoholism is so rampant that the average life expectancy of men is 51 years, according to Grellner.

For years, tribal leaders pinned hopes for a revival among the Cheyenne-Arapaho on regaining 7,000 acres that the federal government took in 1869 to build a military outpost, Fort Reno.

The federal government has rebuffed the Indians' claim on the land despite evidence that the tribe was never paid for it. Facing bureaucratic inaction, as well as local political opposition, the Indians turned to the Democrats. Urged on by Oklahoma Democratic activists, the Indians financed ads criticizing Nickles, participated in a voting drive that registered some 7,000 new voters and set their sights on getting a hearing inside the White House.

"We had to give a large contribution to be heard," said Hoffman, secretary of the Tribal Business Committee. And so, on April 30 last year, the tribe agreed to tap into an account known as the welfare fund -- proceeds from bingo and smoking shops -- and pledged $100,000 to the DNC.

In return, Grellner and Hoffman said, DNC fund-raisers promised them a meeting in the White House. Such a meeting occurred June 17, when two tribal leaders were among those invited to a lunch with Clinton. Earlier in the day, the Indians were surprised when their DNC guides asked pointedly where their check was.

The Indians had not brought the money with them, they explained, having decided to transfer it to the DNC by wire. At the lunch, Clinton listened politely to their pitch about the land title but promised nothing.

Within a week, DNC fund-raising officials began calling the FTC Indians. They called Charles Surveyor; Tyler Todd, the other tribal representative at the Blue Room lunch; and Grellner.

On June 26, the tribe put together $87,671 by cashing a certificate of deposit from a fund normally used to help destitute members of the tribe pay for fuel or food. It was, they explained, all they could amass on short notice.

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