Unlimited political contributions empower Indian tribes

SHARON THEIMER; The Associated Press
News Tribune

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In their rivalry with other gaming interests, Indian tribes now have an advantage in political giving - they're exempt from the overall donor limits in the nation's new campaign law that took effect this election cycle.

The tribes, which last election spread around $7 million in federal donations, do not have to abide by the overall individual donor limit of $95,000 in contributions to candidates, political action committees and parties. And unlike companies, the tribes can give donations directly from their treasuries.

Tribes have scored victories in each of the past two elections, helping Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson keep his South Dakota seat last year, and in 2000, unseating Washington Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

They've also seen controversy.

In California, at least two tribes have been fighting state election officials' attempt to force them to file campaign finance reports. In Wisconsin, Republicans accuse three tribes of donating $700,000 to the Democratic Party to help Democrat Jim Doyle become governor and win more favorable state gaming agreements from him. The tribes deny any quid pro quo.

While unlimited-size donations known as soft money are now outlawed for everyone, including the tribes, the campaign finance rules' special treatment of Indian nations has some competitors crying foul.

"They can give money unlike any American businesses," said Mike Sloan, senior vice president for the Las Vegas-based Mandalay Resort Group casino company. "It's a disparity that Congress has created, probably unintentionally, and it's the result of the explosion of Indian gaming."

Tribal advocates, including the National Indian Gaming Association, say some in Congress considered putting tribes on the same ground as other donors, but they lobbied to maintain the special status the Federal Election Commission gave them.

Tribal leaders dismiss the criticism as jealousy over Indians' efforts to raise their political standing.

"There's a lot of people bashing the Indians because they're on the scene and they're active now," said Stan Brand, NIGA counsel. "The minute they have exercised the least bit of political muscle, people want to change the rules on them. ... People have tried, and people have failed."

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said the tribes' political concerns go far beyond casinos to such issues as economic diversity, improved public services on reservations and protection of their sovereignty.

Neither the new nor the old campaign finance law specifically mentions Indian tribes. Rather, their special status comes from the FEC, which views them as "persons" under the rules. Other unincorporated entities in that category, such as homeowners' associations, could give as the tribes do, but in reality few exist, said FEC Commissioner David Mason.

"I'm not aware of any other organizations who are similarly situated to do this," Mason said of tribal giving.

Tribes gave at least $7 million to federal candidates, party committees and political action committees in the last election cycle, an Associated Press analysis of figures compiled by the FEC and PoliticalMoneyLine campaign finance tracking service found.

More than $8 of every $10 in tribal contributions in the 2001-02 cycle came from 30 tribes, all with enterprises including casinos.

At least two tribes gave more than $500,000, within range of the contribution levels of Las Vegas-based casino giants such as Harrah's Entertainment and Mandalay.

Among top donors, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Choctaw, Miss., gave at least $615,000 to federal candidates and political organizations, and the Ho-Chunk Nation, based in Black River Falls, Wis., donated at least $512,000. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs, Calif., gave roughly $429,500. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, whose Foxwoods casino in Connecticut is one of the world's biggest and most profitable, contributed at least $419,895.

"We encourage the invitations to fund-raisers, both Democratic and Republican, for party organizations as well as individuals, because that gives us an opportunity to participate and network," said John Guevremont, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe's chief operating officer. "All the parties have come to us."

Overall tribal giving has leaned Democratic in past elections. Guevremont, a Republican, is among the Indian leaders who expects that to change in light of the Republican control of the White House and Congress.

Tribal giving

Indian tribes contributed at least $7 million to federal candidates, political action committees and national party committees in the 2001-02 election cycle. About $8 of every $10 came from 30 tribes with casinos and other business interests, including:

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Choctaw, Miss.: $615,000

Ho-Chunk Nation, Black River Falls, Wis.: $512,000

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Palm Springs, Calif.: $429,500

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Mashantucket, Conn.: $419,895

Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Cabazon, Calif.: $295,500

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee, N.C.: $260,000

Forest County Potawatomi, Crandon, Wis.: $210,000

Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Elton, La.: $207,000

Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, Prior Lake, Minn.: $196,500

Gila River Indian Community, Sacaton, Ariz.: $194,939

Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut, Uncasville, Conn.: $194,350

Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, Indio, Calif.: $190,500.

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, Mount Pleasant, Mich.: $177,980

Tigua Indian Reservation, El Paso, Texas: $167,500

Barona Band of Mission Indians, Lakeside, Calif.: $162,000

Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, Roseburg, Ore.: $156,800

Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Tacoma: $69,250

Soboba Band of Mission Indians, San Jacinto, Calif.: $58,500

Tulalip Tribes, Marysville: $56,000

Source: The Associated Press analysis of tribal political contributions compiled by the Federal Election Commission and PoliticalMoneyLine.


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