Sound Familiar? Once Again, Anti-Gambling Republicans Secretly Work With Indian Casinos

A New York Times report this weekend on national groups coordinating to win state-level elections noted the revelation, which first surfaced last fall, that Alabama Republicans worked to funnel money from Indian casinos to support candidates running on anti-gambling platforms in 2010.

The casinos opposed the expansion of gambling as part of plan to quash competition; meanwhile, state Republicans needed an influx of money to help them win control of the state legislature.

Alabama GOP chairman Mike Hubbard and state senator Del Marsh, who also serves as the state party’s finance chairman, worked with an Indian tribe to direct money to the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee. The RSLC, run by former RNC chairman and likely Virginia senate candidate Ed Gillespie, then passed the funds on to Alabama Republicans, thus shielding anti-gambling candidates from a public association with tribal casinos.

The arrangement also offered donors a way to help Mr. Hubbard without their checks showing up on the Alabama party’s public filings. One such supporter was the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which operates several large casinos on tribal land in Alabama.

The tribe was wary of the rapid expansion of non-Indian gambling in the state, particularly the proliferation of small bingo parlors competing with their resort casinos, and stood to benefit if antigambling Republicans took control of the Legislature. But precisely because they opposed gambling, few Republican state lawmakers or candidates would accept the tribe’s contributions.

After meeting with Mr. Marsh and other Republicans, said Robert R. McGhee, director of government affairs for the tribe, the tribe chose a different approach: It donated $350,000 to the leadership committee. When the contributions were later disclosed, critics accused Mr. Hubbard of using the Washington group to launder the money by exchanging it with other contributions.

If this story sounds familiar to you, that might be because disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed — who once led the Christian Coalition and now runs the Faith & Freedom Coalition — hatched a similar plan in the late 1990s to raise money from Indian casinos to back the “anti-gambling” Christian Coalition in order to stifle their gambling industry competitors.

In 1999, Abramoff subcontracted Reed’s firm to generate opposition to attempts to legalize a state-sponsored lottery and video poker in Alabama, an effort that was bankrolled by the Choctaw Tribe in order to eliminate competition to its own casino in neighboring Mississippi.[67] Reed promised that Century Strategies was “opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back” and his firm ultimately received $1.3 million from the Choctaws for this effort, which included engaging the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition, as well as influential right-wing figures such as James Dobson, to work to defeat the proposals. [68]

The strategy had one small problem: the Alabama Christian Coalition had an explicit policy that it “will not be the recipient of any funds direct or in-direct or any in-kind direct or indirect from gambling interests.” (Emphasis in original.)[69] Knowing this, Reed and Abramoff worked to hide the source of the $850,000 paid to the Christian Coalition for its anti-gambling efforts by funneling money from the Choctaws through Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, DC anti-tax organization headed by their old College Republican friend Grover Norquist.[70] When asked why the tribe’s money had to be funneled through conduits such as ATR, a Choctaw representative stated it was because Reed did not want it known that casino money was funding his operation: “It was our understanding that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr. Reed’s political concerns.”[71]

Nonetheless, Reed repeatedly assured the Christian Coalition that the funding for its work was not coming from gambling interests. This was technically true as the Choctaws were paying for it out of their non-gambling revenue, though their objective was obviously to protect their own gambling interests and revenue.[72] According to emails obtained during a Senate investigation into Abramoff’s activities and reported in the media, Reed was well aware of who was paying for this anti-gambling effort. When the information began to surface in the press and the Christian Coalition learned of the source of the $850,000 it had received, it demanded an explanation from Reed who apologized in a letter saying he should have “explained that the contributions came from the Choctaws,”[73] this admitting that he had been fully aware of the source of the funding. But by the time Reed offered his “after-the-fact apology,” the gambling initiative had been defeated and the Christian Coalition had been duped.[74]

When word of Reed’s work for Abramoff first broke, Reed claimed that he had “no direct knowledge of [Abramoff’s lobbying firm’s] clients or their interests.”[75] But according to the report recently released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Abramoff’s bilking of the tribes, Reed was informed by Abramoff as early as 1999 that the money that was funding his anti-gambling operations was coming from the casino-owning Choctaw tribe.

The report published an email Abramoff sent to Reed instructing him to “page me with a page of no more than 90 words ... informing me of your completion of the budget and giving me a total budget figure with category breakdowns. Once I get this, I will call Nell [Rodgers] at Choctaw and get it approved.” A subsequent email to Reed asked him to send “invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks asap.”[76]

Thus, Reed was clearly aware that the funding for his anti-gambling work was coming from the Choctaw and that he was indirectly working to protect the tribe’s multi-million dollar gambling interests. Despite the repeated references to the Choctaw in Abramoff’s emails, Reed continued to publicly insist that he did not know the source of the funding.[77]

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