WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lobbyists on both sides of the Wayland casino controversy are regrouping today following disturbing allegations by The Washington Post that indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff had pressured federal officials to delay the casino development.
“We’ve had no dealing whatsoever with Abramoff, any of the tribes or any casino operators,” said John Helmholdt, spokesman for local casino opposition group 23 is Enough!
“The issue here is that the federal gaming law is broken, and I’d think that the Gun Lake Tribe should be calling for the same reforms that we are.”
“We’re reviewing the information that has come to light,” said James Nye of Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, which represents the Match-E-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, commonly known as the Gun Lake Indian Tribe. He indicated that a statement and possible legal action are forthcoming.
“I think that the Gun Lake Tribe should be asking for an investigation,” added Helmholdt.
According to the Post’s Susan Schmidt, Abramoff claimed in e-mails sent in 2002 that the deputy secretary of the interior had pledged to block the Gun Lake Tribe’s efforts to build a casino in Wayland that would compete with one of his tribal clients. He later told two associates that he was trying to hire the official.
It can be a federal crime for government officials to negotiate for a job while involved in decisions affecting the potential employer. A federal task force is investigating whether Abramoff tried to arrange for his firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, to hire J. Steven Griles, then deputy interior secretary.
Of local concern are parallel allegations that Griles “committed” to blocking the tribe from building the Wayland casino.
In his e-mails, Abramoff allegedly suggested using an environmental challenge to block the project, the tactic currently employed in Michigan Gambling Opposition (MichGo)’s federal lawsuit.
In 2001, the tribe began seeking approval for the 147-acre casino on the former Ampro site. As part of the application, the tribe prepared an environmental assessment, but was not asked to provide a more detailed environmental impact statement (EIS).
On Dec. 4, 2002, Abramoff received an e-mail from Saginaw Chippewas tribal representative Chris Petras, who said the Gun Lake proposal was moving forward rapidly, according to the Post. A public comment period on the tribe’s environmental assessment was expected to be the last step before the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a part of the Interior Department, approved the project.
That same day, Abramoff sent an urgent e-mail to Italia Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.
“This is a disaster in the making,” he wrote. “This casino we discussed with Steve and he said that it would not happen. It seems to be happening! The way to stop it is for Interior to say they are not satisfied with the environmental impact report. Can you get him to stop this one ASAP? They are moving fast. Thanks Italia. This is a direct assault on our guys, Saginaw Chippewa,” the Post quoted the e-mail as saying.
Federici posted a quick reply: “I will call him ASAP.” She met with Griles in his office two days later, according to a copy of Grile’s schedule released to the Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
Abramoff fought the project because it would draw business from a casino operated by his clients, the Saginaw Chippewas.
Allegedly, Griles was also enlisted to stop a Louisiana tribe’s proposed casino, which threatened another Abramoff client.
Abramoff was indicted earlier this month on federal wire fraud and conspiracy charges in Florida. Now, the federal probe is examining Abramoff’s relationship and influence with officials of the Bush administration, as highlighted by the previously undisclosed Gun Lake e-mails.
Days after he appealed to Federici, Abramoff reassured Petras in a Dec. 12, 2002, e-mail. “The meeting with Griles went well. We have a lot to do but we’ll get there.”
Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon, also under investigation, wrote Abramoff on Dec. 16: “Hey, I think a real quick way to blow this Gun Lake thing out of the water is to have BIA reject the land into trust, or lay some stipulation on their application that would buy us some time. Any word from Griles on this?”
Abramoff wrote back, “I thought the way to do this is to have them reject the EIS, which I believe Griles has committed to do.”
The Saginaw Chippewas, owners of Soaring Eagle in Mt. Pleasant, spent $9.4 million last year to win voter approval of a constitutional amendment to limit the expansion of gambling in Michigan, Proposal A, according to reports filed with state elections officials.
Combined with donations from the owner of the MGM Casino in Detroit, the Let Voters Decide campaign was one of the most lucratively funded campaigns in Michigan history.
Helmholdt believes that the allegations against Abramoff and the Saginaw Chippewas should be an opportunity for the common ground he sees between the two local groups.
“We both feel like we’ve been misrepresented,” he said. “These laws are adversely impacted by politics and there are abuses on both sides. It just shows the need for the reform we’re calling for.”