A Tangled Web

Oklahoma Gazette | January 4, 2006
Tens of thousands of dollars funneled into Oklahoma political campaigns in the past five years fell into question when high-flying lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted this year.

Abramoff was indicted in August with multiple counts of wire fraud and one of conspiracy in the purchase of gambling boats in Florida, according to The Washington Post. His alleged multiple funding schemes — which lined the pockets of beltway politicians but a lot of Oklahoma politicians as well — were laid bare.

Abramoff is now reportedly talking with prosecutors about a plea bargain in return for his testimony about the years of dealmaking involving Indian tribes, casinos and politicians.

Recently, Oklahoma 5th District Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Warr Acres, announced he was donating $1,000 given to his campaign and $5,000 given to his political action committee, the First Freedoms Fund, to Indian health research.

Istook’s actions followed Oklahoma Democratic Party Chair Lisa Pryor’s release the previous week calling for Istook to return $29,000 associated with Abramoff’s activities.

“Istook took money from an indicted lobbyist and his partners, and apparently used his political office to help them, and now he wants us to believe there is no relationship? Do the right thing, return the money,” Pryor wrote.

Istook lashed out at the criticism.

“This is clearly a trumped-up smear campaign by a Democrat hit squad that doesn’t have its facts right and doesn’t care about getting them right,” Istook told Oklahoma Gazette.

Istook also claimed Oklahoma Democrats were recipients of Abramoff money.

“While the Oklahoma Democratic Party is quick to criticize these donors who gave to the First Freedoms Fund, they are silent about over $17,000 that these identical donors gave to Brad Carson’s campaign,” Istook claimed. “Those identical donors also gave major money to a PAC, which then gave $10,000 to Dan Boren, and one of them gave $2,000 directly to Boren. Yet the Oklahoma Democrats haven’t criticized Boren whatsoever. That’s further proof that the Democrat claims are just a dishonest partisan political attack.”

At the time of the “Controversy reaches Istook” article (Gazette, Dec. 28, 2005) on Istook’s Abramoff connections, the Gazette was unable to find such records. However, those records have now come to light and show that Oklahoma Democrats indeed garnered thousands of dollars linked to Abramoff, according to a foundation that tracks campaign funding.

Web site: Money to Oklahoma Dems, Repubs

Records obtained from Opensecrets.org and an associated Web site, Capitaleye.org, both operated by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., show payment totals to Oklahoma politicians from Abramoff from 1999-2005 are more than $100,000. Both Republicans and Democrats were recipients of Abramoff’s largesse.

This includes $15,000 given to the Oklahoma Democratic Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democratic Chair Pryor, who issued the call for Istook to divest himself of Abramoff funds, said she was surprised by the finding.

“From Abramoff? I have no knowledge of that whatsoever,” Pryor said.

Pryor said that in any case, Istook garnered the money in a scandal that pitted two tribes against one another over a proposed casino in Louisiana.

“Remember, Istook is the one running for governor,” she said. “Playing one tribe against another is inappropriate for Oklahoma, which has 39 different tribes. We felt it would be right, under the circumstances, for him to give his money back.”

Records show Democratic Rep. Dan Boren received $2,000 from Abramoff’s campaign, of which Boren spokesman Michael Allen said his office could find no record.

“We looked at the Web site,” Allen said. “It’s important to make the distinction between money accepted from Jack Abramoff and his associates who contributed money directly, and money that is being contributed by people who happen to do business with him, and the Web site does not make that distinction. Our bottom line is, we’ve never taken any money from Jack Abramoff directly.”

Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the numbers quoted by his Web site were “conservative figures.”

“We did not list associates of Abramoff because that was a vaguer category,” he said. “But we did add SunCruz Casinos and tribes that hired Abramoff.”

Noble said that the intricate web of funding associated with political lobbying can be labyrinthine and confusing. He said that how much money a candidate received might depend on how the data is interpreted.

“Last week we had a number of meetings about it,” Noble said. “The New York Times used our figures; The Washington Post broadened those figures. It’s a question of everybody being clear about what they are doing. It’s a question of what you want to include.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, former Democratic Rep. Brad Carson received $20,600 of Abramoff-related funding. Carson, however, disputed the center’s figures when contacted by the Gazette.

“I have never met Jack Abramoff or taken money from him or from any of his associates,” Carson said.

But Republicans remain the greatest benefactors of Abramoff in Oklahoma, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While the state Republican Party garnered $2,500, much less than the state Democratic Party, Republicans holding office received much more, according to the records.

Istook connections

Few politicians now practicing in Oklahoma have as many apparent ties to Abramoff as Istook. Istook’s connections to Abramoff were first reported by The Associated Press in November. The AP claimed Istook was among 33 lawmakers who wrote letters urging the Bush administration to reject a casino to be built by the Jena Band of the Choctaw Indians in Louisiana. All of these lawmakers received money from Abramoff, according to National Public Radio.

Abramoff represented a rival tribe, the Coushatta, which wanted to eliminate possible competition from the Jena tribe’s proposed casino, according to the AP story. Abramoff and some colleagues lobbied to have the Jena casino deal killed by the federal government, according to the story.

The story quoted Istook saying, “I signed the letter as part of my long-standing opposition to the spread of gambling, and for no other reason.”

However, the treasurer for Istook’s First Freedoms Fund PAC is Dennis Stephens. According to other lobbying records at Opensecrets.org, Stephens represents gambling concerns elsewhere. Stephens was an aid to President Reagan and former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.

The same Stephens is also a member of the lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, which also employed Abramoff (until Abramoff joined the firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP. Abramoff has since left that firm as well). According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ lobbying records, among many clients, Stephens represented gambling concerns, including the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and eLottery Inc., working along with Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, another lobbyist who has been indicted in the scandal. The firm was paid $1.8 million alone from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw in 2000 with Stephens and Abramoff listed as contacts, along with others, according to the records.

Further, Stephens is listed as having the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as a client. In 1997, Abramoff arranged a trip to Saipan in the islands, in which he joined Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay, who now faces trial in Texas for charges of money laundering, according to news reports. The Marianas trip is now also reportedly under investigation.

According to Opensecrets.org’s records, the First Freedoms Fund, under Stephens’ treasurership, received $5,000 from Abramoff in 2003. After telling the Gazette he was donating Abramoff’s $1,000 direct political contribution to Indian health concerns, Istook two days later announced he was also donating the $5,000 from First Freedoms Fund.

“At my request, that PAC is donating that $5,000 to Indian health research at OMRF (Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation),” Istook told the AP. “We’re not giving money back, we’re giving it away. … I think it’s a worthy cause. It’s a proper use of money that came from Mr. Abramoff. I’m trying to make sure that it’s used for a proper purpose.”

However, approximately $23,000 more is reported by the AP to have come from Abramoff or his associates into the fund. When contacted by the Gazette, Stephens said he would not comment on the record and would have to check the PAC’s files to confirm any of these figures.

A number of Preston Gates and Greenberg Traurig associates are listed among donors. Money was also funneled back from First Freedoms Fund to Preston Gates, records show.

Recipients of money from the First Freedoms Fund include a large number of Oklahoma Republican candidates, as well as Republican candidates in races outside the state.

A call was made to Istook spokesman Matt Lambert, but Lambert did not call back before this story went to press.

Noble said he is not surprised that Istook would return or donate the money only a little at a time.

“It’s actually a pattern which we’ve seen before,” Noble said. “Which is the principle that they are reluctant to give up money. Some of them, when faced with a scandal, will disgorge all the money that they think in any way could be related. Others will do it piecemeal. Those who do that give it back on an as-needed basis, as they are questioned about each individual contribution.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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