Native American tribes gave Democrats $1.5 million in '96, seeking advocacy Senate panel set to probe exploitation of Indians

October 30, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- After decades of fighting for the return of tribal lands taken by the U.S. government more than a century ago, the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians believed that things were about to change.

The Oklahoma tribe had pledged $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, more than they had in their bank account at the time. Suddenly, on June 17, 1996, tribal leaders were breaking bread at the White House with none other than President Clinton.

"It's politics. If you want to get things done, you're going to have to play things their way," tribal Chairman Charles Surveyor explained to his fellow tribesmen beforehand, in a frank conversation that was recorded on audiotape and may soon be played at the Senate's campaign fund-raising hearings.

"It may not seem right but if you want some things done for your tribe or something, you've got to go along."

Indian tribes -- both the casino-rich and the struggling -- are a hot new prospect for fund-raisers in both parties. A computer analysis of Native American giving prepared for the Los Angeles Times shows that donations to both parties have risen tenfold from 1991 to 1996, with the bulk of the money going to the Democrats.

The flow of funds -- $1.5 million to Democrats in the 1996 election cycle alone -- has given tribal leaders new entree in Washington. But it also has raised questions about exploitation and influence peddling that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee intends to delve into at its hearings today.

The government still has not returned the Cheyenne-Arapaho's 7,000 acres. And because tribal leaders later complained that they were led to believe the donation would lead to the land return, the Democrats in March sent back $107,671.74 to the tribe.

No refund was necessary, however, in the case of the St. Croix Chippewa, the Oneida of Wisconsin and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota. Together, they contributed more than $270,000 to Democrats -- and they got what they wanted.

These tribes operated their own casinos. So in 1993, when three nearby bands of Wisconsin Chippewa sought to convert an off-reservation dog track in Hudson, Wis., near the Minnesota border, into a full-blown casino, the tribes that already had casinos objected vociferously.

Their situation looked grim in November 1994, when the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended approval of the Chippewa casino. The case then went to Washington, where a midlevel staff member in the Interior Department also endorsed the casino.

The tribes hired lobbyist Patrick J. O'Connor, a former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.

Ultimately, the Interior Department rejected the Chippewa casino plan. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is scheduled to testify before the Senate panel today.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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