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FBI Follows Money in Tribe's Beltway Success

The Mashpee gave tens of thousands to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and California Rep. Pombo.

December 24, 2005|Richard A. Serrano and Judy Pasternak | Times Staff Writers

MASHPEE, Mass. — Everybody got something.

The Mashpee Wampanoags, famed for greeting the Pilgrims at Plymouth, will be named a nationally recognized tribe -- a designation they sought for 30 years so that they could benefit from federal aid programs.

Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist embroiled in a Washington corruption scandal, and his firm championed the Indians' cause and pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in tribal money.

And Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the influential House Resources Committee, landed a lucrative source of political donations: the small group of Native Americans whose ancestral lands are about as far from his Northern California district as one can get in the United States.

The trifecta of money, politics and power that quietly came together over the last several years has attracted the attention of a federal law enforcement task force investigating the burgeoning Abramoff scandal.

FBI officials have visited the tribal offices here to obtain financial documents, and other task force investigators in Washington are reviewing what role political leaders and others played in the Mashpee's success.

Where the investigation will lead is unknown. But several people close to Abramoff have pleaded guilty in other aspects of the wide-ranging scandal. And in recent days, several Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Pombo, have returned donations from Abramoff or turned the money over to charity.

Officials do know that the flow of cash from the Mashpee to Abramoff and Pombo is a textbook example of the kind of cases of alleged influence-buying that the task force is assembling.

But what investigators want to determine is whether the Mashpee episode crossed the line into criminal behavior, as other Abramoff ventures allegedly did.

Those involved say no laws were broken and instead tell the story of one of America's most fabled Native American tribes and how the Mashpee have petitioned for government recognition for three decades.

Unlike other tribes that hired Abramoff, the Mashpee weren't in the casino business; gambling is illegal in Massachusetts. The tribe sought official recognition to qualify for a raft of federal benefits.

After years of languishing on a long list of tribes seeking Interior Department designations, the Mashpee Tribal Council concluded that its efforts were going nowhere.

So three years ago, the tribe began spreading tens of thousands of dollars around Washington.

It appeared to work. On Oct. 1, in a settlement of a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, the tribe was placed on "active" consideration status for recognition.

After a final round of reviews, the Mashpee will probably be officially recognized by March 30, 2007.

The settlement would permit the Mashpee to seek a casino license if Massachusetts legalizes gambling.

Tribal Council President Glenn Marshall and tribal chief Vernon Lopez acknowledged in separate interviews that their unconventional strategy had paid off. "Sometimes," Lopez said, "it's necessary to go out of your way to get some of the things you need."

Pombo, whose congressional district straddles California's Central Valley, was clearly their biggest champion.

Now in his seventh term, he went to Washington on the cusp of the GOP revolution in Congress and soon hitched himself to Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who became House majority leader.

Their friendship was born of a shared conservative ideology. Like DeLay, Pombo has worked to reduce government regulations and to cut taxes and spending. And he has strongly advocated private property rights, sometimes to the chagrin of environmentalists.

DeLay sponsored Pombo's successful 2003 drive to become chairman of the Resources Committee, which oversees Native American affairs. The post was seen as a coup for Pombo. One disgruntled rival for the chairmanship publicly attributed Pombo's rise to his fundraising prowess.

But the Capitol Hill landscape has sharply altered since. DeLay is fighting money-laundering charges in Texas and has had to leave his House leadership post. Abramoff reportedly is near a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. And Pombo, through his work on behalf of the Mashpee, has attracted investigators' attention as well.

Pombo, 44, did not reply to several requests for interviews this week.

His Resources Committee spokesman, Brian Kennedy, said the chairman had simply been trying to draw attention to "the poster tribe on the need for reforming the recognition process."

Kennedy said Pombo first learned of the Mashpee when the son of Pombo's chief of staff learned during a school project that the tribe that greeted the Pilgrims had been trying since 1975 to win federal recognition. "That's sort of how the chairman got engaged," Kennedy said.

The Mashpee also were getting to know Pombo.

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