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Abramoff prober had ties to lobbyist

Democrat collected gifts from a client: Wampanoag tribe

WASHINGTON -- The Democrat helping to lead the Senate investigation into Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying had his own connections to the controversial lobbyist's team and clients, including using his sports arena skybox to raise money.

Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, acknowledges he got Congress in fall 2003 to press government regulators to decide, after decades of delay, whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition.

Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and collected at least $11,500 in political donations from Abramoff partner Michael D. Smith, who was representing the Mashpee, around the time he helped craft the legislation, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Associated Press.

The senator also didn't reimburse another tribe, the Mississippi Choctaw, for the use of Abramoff's skybox in 2001, when the tribe held a fund-raiser for him there, instead treating it as a tribal contribution. He only recently reimbursed the tribe for the box, four years later, after determining it was connected to Abramoff.

Dorgan, who is vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that is investigating Abramoff, says he sees no reason to step down from the probe, which he and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, are leading. He said he had no idea at the time that any of the transactions were connected to Abramoff or the alleged fleecing of tribes.

''I never met Jack Abramoff, but I am appalled by what we have learned about his actions," Dorgan said Thursday. ''So I have never felt there was any conflict in my helping to lead that investigation. I think Senator McCain would agree our investigation has been relentless and that neither of us will be diverted."

Dorgan's contacts, donations, and fund-raisers involving Abramoff tribal clients and lobbying associates, as well as those of other lawmakers, have not been examined during the Senate hearings into the lobbyist's roughly $80 million in charges to the tribes.

The senator didn't volunteer the information, although he did disclose his donations in campaign reports over the years.

Larry Noble, the government's former chief election enforcement lawyer, said Dorgan should have considered stepping aside from the inquiry and should have disclosed all his own intersections with Abramoff's associates and tactics.

''I think any way you look at it, he had an obligation to disclose," Noble said. ''It is hard for anyone not to see a conflict when you're investigating the same activity you yourself were involved with."

Over the past month, the AP has reported that about four dozen lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, collected donations from Abramoff's tribal clients and firm around the time they wrote letters to the Bush administration or Congress favorable to the tribes.

Congressional ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in performing official duties and accepting political money. The Justice Department is investigating whether Abramoff, already charged with fraud in a Florida case, won any undue influence through donations and favors.

Dorgan on Monday sharply criticized the AP for reporting last week that he collected $20,000 from Abramoff's firm and tribes in the period when he wrote a letter urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund a school construction program that Abramoff's clients and other tribes wanted.

The senator, who has Indian tribes in his state, said he long supported the program and the letter and donations had no connection.

He asserted that he never took any action or received campaign help that knowingly involved Abramoff.

Dorgan's office acknowledged he met in 2003 with representatives of the Mashpee, the Massachusetts tribe that Abramoff signed as a client and Smith represented.

The senator used his position as a member of the joint House-Senate committee that approved the final Interior Department spending bill for 2004 to craft a provision that pressed the agency to ''complete its review of the Mashpee petition as expeditiously as possible."

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