WASHINGTON – The Gila River Indian Community, an Arizona tribe that operates casinos near Phoenix, wants to stop another tribe from opening a rival enterprise. So Gila River mobilized its lobbyists at Washington's biggest firm.
The community paid Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $2.3 million for federal lobbying so far this year. As a Gila-backed bill moved through the committee process in the House, the Tohono O'odham Nation bolstered its own K Street presence, nearly doubling the amount spent on federal lobbying, which is about $2 million so far this year.
The pricey skirmish between the two Arizona tribes offers proof that a decade-old scandal that rocked K Street, Capitol Hill and Indian Country did not ruin the lucrative business of representing Indian tribes.
The scandal, which captivated Washington and sparked an overhaul of federal lobbying laws, stemmed from Jack Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of tribal clients with gambling interests.
It ultimately led to 20 convictions or guilty pleas including those of Abramoff and one lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who resigned in 2006 soon after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements.
Tribes have an unusual relationship with the U.S. government: They are sovereign nations in their own right, but the feds must approve land acquisitions and the National Indian Gaming Commission regulates the industry, for example.
Lobbyists can help.
Lobbyists: Abramoff a blip
Federal lobbying by Indian gaming enterprises hit an all-time high last year at more than $24 million and this year is on track for the same level, according to lobbying data analyzed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). That's about one-third of the tab for the entire defense and aerospace industry, the center found.
Lobbyists who specialize in this kind of advocacy say the Abramoff saga was but a blip, and tribal clients say they've moved on.
In 2005, the year Abramoff was indicted, the CRP estimated that $19 million was spent on tribal-gambling lobbying. Abramoff was famous for reporting huge dollar amounts on his Lobbying Disclosure Act reports to Congress.
Gambling is only one of the issues on which tribes seek lobbying help.
"Since the beginning of this country, tribes have had resources that outsiders wanted to take, with or without fair compensation — usually without," said Philip Baker-Shenk, a partner in Holland & Knight's Indian law practice, who is not involved in the Gila-Tohono O'odham feud. "Tribes have had to use the rule of law, moral persuasion and alliances to protect their own sphere of influence."
Abramoff's big bills got attention around town, and so have Akin Gump's from the Gila tribe.
Akin Gump, the biggest lobbying practice as measured in federal revenue reported to Congress, is on track to bring in nearly $40 million for 2015. Akin Gump's clients span the economy from Amazon.com to private equity giant KKR & Co. Notable lobbyists include former Reps. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., and Vic Fazio, D-Calif.
Akin Gump's Gila River client has argued against the Tohono nation's land acquisition and casino plan because it isn't "aboriginal" to the Tohono O'odham, said lobbyist Donald Pongrace of the law firm.
The Tohono secured new land near Phoenix in Glendale, Ariz., where it wants to operate a casino, as part of a settlement with the federal government after some of its previous territory was flooded in the 1960s when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Painted Rock Dam.
Now the feud is on Capitol Hill.
The fight has had Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who opposes the measure, worrying that its proponents will try to sneak it through.
Grijalva said the Gila River tribe is trying to get Congress to do what courts and the executive branch would not — stop the Tohono O'odham's future casino — by relying on "a very powerful firm like Akin Gump, who have many clients and entry into many offices in Congress."
He says the "grossness" and illegal activities of the Abramoff situation are absent in the Gila-Tohono O'odham fight.
"But I do see a pattern," he said. "If it is in the interest of the client, we overlook judicial decisions or agency decisions and apply the political pressure. And that's when lobbying firms make a great deal of money."