Photo credit: Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Crooked Liz? Controversial Warren Bill Raises Specter of Abramoff


An American Indian tribe in Massachusetts with direct ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is trying to bypass the federal courts and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to jumpstart a stalled casino project underway near the Massachusetts border with Rhode Island. Ironically, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has enlisted an unlikely ally, Senator Elizabeth Warren, to carry its water on Capitol Hill.

The Mashpee Wampanoag began its quest to become a federally recognized Indian tribe in 1975. Such recognition is necessary for a tribe to operate a gaming institution on off-reservation land. In 2007, after hiring Jack Abramoff to lobby Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Mashpee finally achieved its goal.

Meanwhile, Abramoff was under intensive federal investigation for his lobbying activities on behalf of another casino entity.  In January 2006, “Casino Jack” pled guilty to charges of mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials and tax evasion, and was sentenced to six years in federal prison. Twenty-one others — including lobbyists, a White House official, a member of Congress and congressional aides — either pled guilty or were found guilty of various corruption charges related to the scandal.

The expansive Abramoff investigation uncovered major corruption within the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Its chief, Glenn Marshall, pled guilty in 2009 to multiple federal charges, including embezzling tribal funds and campaign finance violations committed while working with Abramoff to secure federal recognition of the tribe. Yet, even with Abramoff in prison, the Mashpee continued working with his colleagues.

In recent years, the tribe continued pursuing a Massachusetts casino. To move forward, it needed the federal government to grant the tribe land in trust on which to build the casino. That’s where the Mashpee ran into a major roadblock: Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to grant federal lands in trust only to Indian tribes recognized at that time by the federal government. The Mashpee tribe did not meet those criteria.

Nevertheless, in 2015 — using a convoluted rationale — the Obama Interior Department approved the tribe’s land-to-trust application. This allowed the Mashpee to take about 300 acres of land into trust and partner with the Malaysian developer Genting Group to break ground on the project in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Genting, one of the world’s largest gambling conglomerates, is a central player in an ongoing government corruption investigation in Malaysia which led to the recent arrest of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. In 2012, Genting and another large conglomerate allegedly sold energy assets to the Malaysian government for inflated prices and, soon afterward, contributed $10 million to a charitable foundation directed by the prime minister. If the Mashpee casino doesn’t go forward, Genting will lose the $400 million it invested in the project.

Incredibly, former California Representative Richard Pombo, who was associated with the Abramoff scandal, is back as a lobbyist for Genting.

On review, the federal court emphatically rejected the Obama administration’s approval of the Mashpee land-in-trust application, and the DOI is now reviewing it, with a decision thought to be imminent. Legal experts expect the Interior Department to summarily reject it based on Carcieri v. Salazar, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared the federal government can only grant land-in-trust for tribes recognized by 1934.

On March 22, 2018, Senator Warren — who has long stood in staunch opposition to casinos and gambling — introduced S. 2628, legislation that seeks to circumvent both the SCOTUS decision and the Interior Department’s involvement by reaffirming the tribal property as trust land, without agency action. If passed, this would set a terrible precedent: Any tribe not satisfied with the outcome of the DOI’s land-to-trust review could find an ally in Congress to introduce legislation to circumvent the process and achieve the desired outcome.

The result: Senator Warren is effectively advocating for a multi-million-dollar bailout for a Malaysian company under investigation by its own government. Having Elizabeth Warren, who invented the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, aid and abet a Malaysian company involved with a scandal of this kind would be ironic if it weren’t so incredibly hypocritical.

Perhaps more to the point, these are bad players. The Mashpee have a history of corruption within their own tribe, and they have long been intricately involved with crooked players like Abramoff et al. Now, they have added the Malaysian Genting Group and the baggage of their questionable business practices in their home country.

There could hardly be a more alarming display of red flags thrown up to warn against the consequences of moving forward with a project. Quite simply, the Warren legislation seeks to accomplish the unfinished business of Abramoff by circumventing the courts and the federal government. The Mashpee tribe should not be allowed to benefit from federal recognition achieved through a documented, undisputed history of corruption. Congress should reject this legislation.

Photo credit: Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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