As the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe fought with the federal government, tribal leaders reached out to a powerful Washington lobbying firm and later to an influential congressman who could help their cause.
One of the tribe's lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, tried to help the tribe by talking with officials within the U.S. Department of the Interior. He, another lobbyist for the Mashpee, and the tribal members have together contributed at least $40,000 since 2003 to Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.
Pombo chairs the Committee on Resources that oversees the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Pombo last year ushered a bill through his committee that would have helped the Mashpee and several other tribes fighting for federal recognition, which would allow the tribes to receive special benefits.
The Tracy Republican has never been linked to any alleged wrongdoing by Jack Abramoff - who is under investigation for allegedly defrauding several American Indian tribes and giving gifts to lawmakers in exchange for official favors. A spokesman said Pombo did nothing wrong, and Mashpee officials have said their tribe was not defrauded.
Pombo was not influenced to act by the political contributions, and Abramoff never personally lobbied the congressman, said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Resources Committee. Furthermore, Kennedy said, Pombo is not a target in any ongoing investigations of Abramoff.
"No one has contacted him in any way regarding these issues," he said.
At least half a dozen lawmakers could be caught up in the Abramoff investigation, including members of Congress involved in American Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest, according to unnamed sources close to the case quoted by The Washington Post.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has had several hearings to examine Abramoff's lobbying activities and the reach of his influence.
Pombo's committee has the jurisdiction to hold similar hearings, and House Democrats have requested that he do so. But Kennedy said such hearings would be redundant because of the number of other agencies looking into the lobbyist. Kennedy denied that Pombo has avoided hearings to protect Abramoff or any other lawmakers who allegedly received improper gifts from the lobbyist.
Members of the tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians, have donated at least $20,000 to Pombo's political group since he was named Committee on Resources Chairman on Jan. 8, 2003. Tribe members gave an additional $12,000 to his re-election campaign earlier this year.
The first Mashpee donation - $12,000 from six members of the tribe to Pombo's leadership political action committee, Rich PAC - came Sept. 29, 2003. That same day, Abramoff gave $5,000 to the fund. Abramoff also gave $2,000 to Pombo's re-election campaign days after he was named resources committee chairman.
In mid-2002, Abramoff instructed the Louisiana Coushatta Indians to give $5,000 to Sen. Byron Dorgan's political group, weeks after the North Dakota Democrat solicited support for a school funding program the tribe wanted to use, a lawyer for the tribe told The Associated Press. Dorgan has said he supported the program before he received the donation.
A spokesman for the Mashpee said neither Abramoff nor his associates coerced tribal members to give money, though the tribe and its lobbyists had been in contact with Pombo's staff in the weeks leading up to the contributions.
"Any donations were given freely by the tribal members in consultation with the strategy put together by their advisers," said Scott Ferson, a spokesman for the tribe.
Pombo and his staff also had several meetings in early 2004 with Glenn Marshall, a high-ranking Mashpee official, and other tribal officials and lobbyists, as he shepherded through his committee a bill that aimed to speed the tribe's recognition process. Marshall was called as a witness in a March 31, 2004, hearing before Pombo's committee.
Federal recognition gives a tribe certain sovereign rights and makes it eligible for social programs designed to benefit American Indians. Recognition also allows a tribe to open a casino - an option Mashpee tribal leaders have said they would consider but are not seriously pursuing.
Pombo's spokesman denied any connection between Pombo's legislation and the tribal donations.
"Likeminded individuals and organizations contribute to Chairman Pombo because they believe in him and support his agenda," Kennedy said. "And his agenda is dictated by (him) alone, long before contributions arrive in the mail at his campaign office."
The Mashpee, whose ancestors participated in the first Thanksgiving, had been unable to obtain federal recognition and had petitioned the government since 1976. Beginning as early as 2001, the Mashpee sought out the help of professional lobbyists Michael Smith and Kevin Ring, from the Washington firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, where Abramoff also worked. Ring contributed $1,000 to Pombo after he was named resources chairman.
It was the tribe's rich history and compelling story that spurred Pombo to help the group, Kennedy said, not tribe members' contributions.
"One could call this tribe the poster tribe for the massive problems and bureaucracy associated with the recognition process," he said.
The Resources Committee passed a bill in September 2004 that would have forced the Bureau of Indian Affairs to speed its consideration of recognition petitions that had been filed prior to 1988. The bill, which would have affected as many as 10 tribes, never made it to the full House for a vote, and the Mashpee won a court decision earlier this year that had the same effect that Pombo's bill would have had.
Before the committee's action, Abramoff himself sought help from former Department of the Interior official Steven Griles through a mutual friend, Itallia Federici, who worked for a Republican environmental group founded by Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton, according to e-mails from the Senate's investigation. Abramoff is also accused of funneling money from his tribal clients to Federici's group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.
Smith, the Mashpee's lobbyist from Greenberg Traurig, wrote Abramoff about the Mashpee in late 2002, explaining the tribe's history and its problems with gaining federal recognition.
"For three years, the Mashpee have been on the 'ready to go active' list at Interior, though they have been skipped over for consideration several times …. The tribe believes that a bureaucrat in the Solicitor General's office has unfairly held them up," Smith wrote to Abramoff on Dec. 6, 2002.
That prompted Abramoff to forward the request to Federici, seeking her access to high-ranking Department of the Interior officials.
"Is there any way you might be able to discreetly find out whether this recognition is being held by one of our guys or one of the bureaucrats?" Abramoff asked Federici in a Jan. 6, 2003, e-mail. "They want me to help, but I don't want to get into something which might cause any problems for Steve (Griles) or the Secretary."