New Book on Abramoff Investigation Gets to the Bottom of Tribal Membership Fraud
Membership disputes have plagued Indian Country for decades now. We have helplessly watched as people who do not trace to Indian tribes falsely claim Native ancestry while our own people are being systematically disenrolled and persecuted on our own reservations. The problem has not only touched the Pechanga tribe, but tribes across the nation. A recently released book written by investigative journalist Susan Bradford reveals that other tribes represented by Ietan Consulting, including the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, have experienced membership disputes similar to ours and that the principals of the lobbying firm facilitated the take over of individuals of questionable tribal legitimacy.
Bradford's Lynched: The Shocking Story of How the Political Establishment Manufactured a Scandal to Have Republican Super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff Removed from Power is a must-read for all Natives, especially those concerned with protecting their heritage and restoring integrity to their reservations. While giving particular attention on the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, which gave birth to the Abramoff scandal, the author documents that tribal governments across the nations were seized by those who do not belong and who are not even Indian. Pechanga has an adopted member, Russell "Butch" Murphy who worked to eliminate 25% of blood members and keep hundreds OUT of the tribe.
We, in Indian Country, were apparently fed a steady dose of propaganda about the Abramoff investigation – namely that the lobbyist at the center of the scandal, Jack Abramoff, was shaking tribes down for money and defrauding his clients. Larry Rosenthal of Ietan helped fan the flames of discontent against Abramoff, who was apparently championing the interests of Indians and therefore, challenging the status quo. Bradford makes a compelling case for Abramoff's innocence, providing strong evidence that he was essentially set up in an invented scandal which was sold to the American people through the media, with Rosenthal's assistance. You can read about the set up and what really happened to Abramoff in the book.
Suffice to say, the scandal originated at the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, which is experiencing membership issues which mirror our own at Pechanga. In Lynched, Bradford meticulously documents how people who do not belong to this tribe took over the Saginaw Chippewa's government and its casino through fraud and deception. What is fascinating about her account is that she captures all the maneuvering and sleight of hand that facilitated the take over.
During the tribe's hotly contested election of 1999, Rosenthal helped organize a coup d'etat which removed the Chief, Kevin Chamberlain, who was trying to clean up the membership rolls. He was essentially following court orders to ensure that the tribe held a legitimate election at a time when fictitious Indians were running as candidates and casting their ballots.
As Bradford documents in her book, the take over of Indian Country by fictitious Indians began in the 1970's around the time in which federally recognized tribes were anticipating their multi-million dollar settlements from the Indian Claims Commission. Miraculously non-Indians, many of them Caucasian, made bee-lines for Indian tribes and their governments. President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty was then underway, and lawyers were dispatched to tribes, who helped sign fictitious Indians onto the tribal membership rolls so that they could receive federal benefits and eventually per cap payments.
The settlement money served as the seed capital for gaming, and ultimately casinos, which have generated tremendous wealth for Indian Country. Many of these newcomers were backed by the federal government who wanted the fictitious Indians to oversee the profit-generating gaming businesses. In the case of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, gaming was spearheaded by a woman by the name of Josephine, whom public records identify as “white.” Eventually she and her family would add people onto the membership rolls and seize control the government and casino, with the assistance of attorneys and their allies on Capitol Hill.
We have all experienced the pervasive influence of nepotism on Indian reservations. On this particular reservation, one of Rosenthal's chief contacts was Bernie Sprague, who later testified against Abramoff in Sen. John McCain's hearings. While Sprague apparently does trace to the tribe, he married into Josephine's family and was therefore afforded privileges reserved for them.
Once Josephine, her family, and allies staked claim on the tribal government, they rewrote the Constitution to solidify their power and control of the tribe's businesses and revenue. In a pattern all too familiar to us, they then proceeded to add more individuals onto the membership rolls, who would then vote for them to keep them in office in perpetuity and who would also receive per cap, even though many are not even Indian. The lengths that some of them went to acquire membership is truly extraordinary. For example, Josephine's mother, Beatrice, apparently assumed the identify of an Indian male, Jesse Davis, and then altered his birth certificate by changing his name to hers, and reassigning the gender on his paperwork to female. Many official records were altered to give these intruders a paper trail of legitimacy.
One of the key legislators who worked with the newly minted tribal elite to facilitate their take over was Congressman Dale Kildee, who helped these newcomers rewrite the Constitution and direct the ICC's settlement money to the Tribal Council while rolling back federal oversight of that money. Gaming was imminent in Indian Country in 1986. At the time, Rosenthal was working for Kildee in the House Resources Committee, where he helped draft multi-million dollar settlements for Indian tribes. Rosenthal was also the inspiration behind the Congressional Native-American Caucus, which Kildee chairs. Before embarking on a career as a lobbyist, Rosenthal joined the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), which established an independent federal regulatory agency over gaming.
During the hotly contested election of 1999 on the Saginaw Chippewa's Mt. Pleasant reservation, the descendants of the original, founding tribal members led by Chief Kevin Chamberlain attempted to remove the fictitious Indians from their reservation and restore legitimacy to their tribe. However, Sprague reached out to his friends in Washington, DC to topple Chamberlain. At the top of his list was Rosenthal, who had a direct channel into the Bureau of Indian Affairs through his roommate Holly Cook, whose boss, Lynn Cutler, managed Indian Affairs at the White House and was directly answerable to Kevin Gover, who was in charge of the BIA. As you all know, Cook is married to our tribal chairman, Mark Maccarro, who was the recent target of a recall attempt.
Rosenthal successfully enlisted Gover to intervene in the election to overthrow Chamberlain and seat the candidates which were drawn from the cadre of elites. A U.S. District Court sought a preliminary injunction against Gover on grounds that his intervention on behalf of the Peters Council was “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal.” Since another tribal election was imminent, the Department of Interior allowed the new Council to serve out its term. After his successful intervention in this election, Rosenthal was retained as lobbyist of the tribe.
Bradford writes her in book:
When asked why the Department of Interior ultimately decided to recognize the Peters Council as the legitimate leaders of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, Gover said, “We started looking at the case and talking to both sides...We didn't get satisfactory explanations from the Chamberlain Council with respect to membership issues and whether the right people had voted in elections. What they were saying is that ineligible people voted....(The BIA) can't resolve membership issues...It's not our problem to get people off the rolls.”
When informed that the Chamberlain Administration was trying to remove people from the tribe who did not legitimately qualify for membership, Gover said: “If the tribe was spending money for the support of non-Indian persons, then that (is) illegal. On the other hand, if they chose on their own to give that money to a non-Indian, the United States has no role and no say in how they use that property. We don't care if they are not Indians from our perspective...The tribe needs to remove them from the reservation, but getting the BIA involved is unlikely as the United States doesn't use its power in that way. There was a time when the United States dictated the day-to-day life of the reservation, but now Indian tribes are free to make their own mistakes. The United States is not a guarantor....”
After Gover recognized the Peters Council, 11 police departments were enlisted to remove Chamberlain from power. Over ten law enforcement agencies were also summoned, and the Michigan Agency, BIA, and FBI all had personnel on the ground at the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to back the Peters Council. Tribal members even remembered seeing a state police helicopter flying over the federal reservation during the take over. “That's how big of a threat they perceived my son to be and how powerful his opposition really was,” Cathy (Chamberlain, the Chief's mother) said.
“What Gover did was a shock to us,” (outgoing Chief) Kevin Chamberlain said. “We were following a court order to fix enrollment and lay a foundation for a legitimate government. We weren't trying to stay in office. We were basically trying to ensure that the election results were valid. We had a plan, but then Gover intervened. The next day, the office was barricaded, the locks were changed, and we couldn't get into our offices. The federal government abnegated all responsibility. Gover informed us that the BIA cannot remove people from the rolls and said that fraud in the membership office is purely an internal matter. Yet, Gover decided to remove me before I could fix the membership issues which have confounded our tribe for over a decade now. He said that the federal government cannot be a guarantor nor determine who may or may not qualify for membership – yet ironically, Gover backed a slate of candidates that our founding Constitution states cannot legitimately qualify for membership or serve in our government. Gover justified his actions by saying that he needed a functioning Tribal Council in place for day-to-day relations between the tribe and federal government.”
....And all with the help of Rosenthal, who has represented the interests of the non-Indian elites within the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe (minus Abramoff's brief tenure as the tribe's lobbyist) ever since. Apparently a network of attorneys, Native organizations, legislators, and agency officials have supported his efforts to keep the corrupt power structure in place, allowing non-Indians to take over tribes and their businesses while disenrolling those who legitimately belong. Consider also that an attorney who worked with Rosenthal to lobby Gover and help remove Chamberlain (Henry Buffalo) is also a tribal judge at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota, which controls the very lucrative Mystic Lake Casino. The Shaopkee is experiencing similar membership disputes and government corruption which are deeply entrenched within the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and our own reservation. That the corrupt status quo is allowed to continue unabated is no accident.
To learn more about organizations and individuals behind the take over of Indian Country and membership disputes, please read Bradford's book. For more information and to order the book, please visit her web site: http://www.susanbradford.org/
Susan Bradford is on TWITTER @susanbradford
The trail runs deep into our political sphere. Those very people we elect to help us, have actually harmed more native Americans.