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Legislators who took tribal donations also pressured Interior

Urged rejection of La. casino plan

WASHINGTON -- Almost three dozen members of Congress, including leaders from both parties, pressed the government to reject an Indian casino in Louisiana while they collected large donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

Many intervened with letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton within days of receiving money from tribes represented by Abramoff or using the lobbyist's restaurant for fund-raising, an Associated Press review of campaign records, IRS records, and congressional correspondence has found.

Legislators said that their intervention had nothing to do with Abramoff, and that the timing of donations was a coincidence. They said they had written letters because they opposed the expansion of tribal gaming -- even though they continued to accept donations from tribes that run casinos.

Many live far from Louisiana and have no constituent interest in the casino dispute.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, held a fund-raiser at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in Washington on June 3, 2003. The event raised at least $21,500 for his Keep Our Majority political action committee from the lobbyist's firm and tribal clients.

Seven days later, Hastert wrote to Norton, urging her to reject the Jena tribe of Choctaw Indians' request for a new casino. Hastert's three top House deputies also signed the letter.

Approving the Jena application or others like it would ''run counter to congressional intent," Hastert's June 10, 2003, letter warned Norton.

It was what Abramoff's tribal clients wanted. The tribes, including the Louisiana Coushattas and Mississippi Choctaw, appeared to have been trying to block the Jena's gambling hall for fear it would undercut business at their casinos.

The Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, sent a letter to Norton on March 5, 2002, also signed by Senator John Ensign, a Republican of Nevada. On March 6, the Coushattas issued a $5,000 check to Reid's tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund. A second Abramoff client tribe sent another $5,000 to Reid's group. Reid ultimately received more than $66,000 in donations related to Abramoff from 2001 to 2004.

In the midst of the congressional letter-writing campaign, the Bush administration rejected the Jena casino on technical grounds. The tribe persisted, and eventually won Interior Department approval. But the casino now is tied up in a court dispute.

Congressional ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in performing their official duties and in accepting political money.

That requirement was made famous a decade ago during the Keating Five scandal, when five legislators were criticized for intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating while receiving money from the failed savings and loan operator.

The Abramoff donations dwarf Keating's. At least 33 legislators wrote letters to Norton and got more than $830,000 in Abramoff-related donations as the lobbying unfolded between 2001 and 2004, the AP found.

''This is one of the largest examples we've had to date where congressional action was predicated on money being given for the action," said Kent Cooper, who reviewed the legislators' campaign reports for two decades as the Federal Election Commission's chief of public disclosure.

Cooper said ''the speed in which this money was turned around" after the letters makes the Abramoff matter more serious than previous controversies that tarnished Congress.

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