October 25, 2002

  Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Tribal PAC contributions for 2002 Minn. elections total $261,300 as of August 19th
(reports as of October 21st due this week)

Alleged campaign finance irregularities include
Mille Lacs chief executive Melanie Benjamin’s campaign contributions to Oberstar

by Clara NiiSka

The profitability of Indian gambling operations in Minnesota depends on a state-sanctioned monopoly on casino gambling.  The political volatility of such gambling monopolies has combined with the huge cash-flow and lucrative profitability of some Indian casinos, the BIA’s historical legacy of corrupt political ‘machines,’ and the high costs of campaigning in television ads to change the face of politics.

Mille Lacs band chief executive Melanie Benjamin is among the tribal officials against whom a formal complaint was filed with the Federal Elections Commission on October 23rd.  Melanie’s campaign contributions to candidate James Oberstar were in excess of the legal limits, according to the documents filed by Twin Cities activists David Hoch and Joseph Marble.  Citing information posted online by the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org) and the Federal Election Commission (http://www.fec.gov/finance_reports.html), Hoch and Marble complain that, “Ms. Benjamin contributed $1,000 on 01/15/02, and another $1,000 on 04/05/02, both to James Oberstar’s General Election Fund, and on 094/05/02, another $1,000 to James Oberstar’s Primary Election Fund.”  Democratic Congressman Oberstar, whose 8th Congressional District encompasses both Mille Lacs and Leech Lake, explains on his campaign website that his “number one priority as a U.S. Representative is to improve the quality of life for the people who sent him to Washington DC on their behalf.”

Press/ON called Melanie Benjamin, explained that a formal complaint had been filed, and asked her about the campaign contributions.  She said that she had not yet seen the complaint, so this writer read the relevant portions over the phone.  Melanie declined to comment, explaining, “I have to see it first, before I can respond to it.  It’s only proper for me” to read it carefully before commenting.  She said that the band’s mail “is not delivered until 11:00.”  Press/ON faxed the complaint, but Melanie, who told this writer that she would be leaving the office to meet with elders, had not responded by press time.

Press/ON also asked Melanie about the reasons for her support for Rep. Oberstar.  She responded in terms of “government relations,” explaining that “we have a strategy of how we contribute” to political candidates.  “You are looking at one specific candidate,” she said of Press/ON’s questions about Oberstar, “but we have a series of candidates” we support.

Hoch and Marble’s complaint also cites “failure of affiliated federal PACs to report as one unit,” specifically including two lobbyists’ PACs which they say interlock with the Mille Lacs Band’s PAC (Mah Mah Wi No Mind Fund): Lockridge, Grindal, Nauen, et al., and Holland and Knight.

The other group of affiliated PACs addressed by the complaint includes five tribal PACs which, according to Hoch and Marble, “are all members of the National Indian Gaming Assoc.”: the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, the San Manuel Mission Band of Indians, the Pojoaque Pueblo Indian Tribe, and the Mille Lacs Band.

Details of Minnesota campaign contributions, compiled by Hoch and Marble, are printed on of this issue.

Controversy over the folding green political influence being wielded by Indian gambling enterprises and tribal governments is not limited to Minnesota.  During just the past month there have been dozens of news reports of campaign finance problems rooted in ‘Indian country.’

In Oklahoma, employees of the Choctaw tribe claimed they were pressured or “forced” to make contributions to the campaign funds of U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe and Rep. Brad Carson, and campaign records show six Choctaw tribal executives contributed a combined $3,000 to Carson’s campaign.

In Idaho, where Indian gambling is a hot issue, Democrat Bruce Perry fueled ongoing controversy over campaign finances with his “drive for $49.90 contributions,” whose donors do not have to be identified under state law, and tribal leaders from Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce have pumped more than $2 million into this year’s political campaigns.

In Arizona, Congressman J.D. Hayworth has received more than a quarter of a million dollars from tribes, tribal PACs and their lobbyists in 14 states.  National Indian Gaming Association lobbyist John Harte reportedly described Hayworth as “a good friend of Indians.”

In California, the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians has made more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions to encourage construction of a rail line mass-transporting gamblers from Los Angeles to their casino.  The band is being sued by the Fair Political Practices Commission for not disclosing recipients of another $7.5 million in lobbying contributions, which the band was late in reporting.  Auga attorneys argue that, as a sovereign nation, the band is not obligated to comply with the state’s political reform laws. 

In New Mexico, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Richardson has raised hefty contributions from Indian gambling interests, including $40,000 from Sandia Pueblo.

And in Colorado, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was among the beneficiaries of lucrative campaign contributions from the Connecticut Mohegans, including collecting $20,500 from Mohegan contractors during a one-day appearance at the Mohegan Sun casino, according to the Connecticut Post.  Sen. Dan Inouye, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, got $10,000 at the same event.  Inouye apparently sees nothing wrong with the tribe and their contractors making contributions, defending his acceptance of hefty sums by asking, “Indians can’t, but Enron can?”

Controversy over Indians’ political contributions is not new to Minnesota.

Former Red Lake tribal council chairman Roger Jourdain came to power in 1958-1959 on a platform of governmental reform focused on the General Council established, according to longtime secretary Peter Graves, by the selfsame Peter Graves.  [Graves published a souvenir poster version of the 1918 Red Lake Constitution memorializing himself as founding father, illustrated with a photo of Graves wearing a Plains Indian feathered headdress and identified as “Chief Graves.”]

Postwar reformer Roger Jourdain was backed on-reservation by the Young Man’s Council, in coalition with others concerned about the tightly centralized power controlled through Peter Graves and his family.  Off-reservation, Roger was backed by the DFL machine of the late 1950s, and according to one scholar who talked with him about the Red Lake tribal council at some length in the early 1960s, Roger’s rise to power was fueled by the support of up-and-coming DFL heavyweight Hubert H. Humphrey.

The power brokers’ deal benefited those who made it.  The BIA got the Indian Reorganization Act form of government for which it had been agitating since the 1930s.  Roger, backed by political heavyweights in Washington, D.C., reigned for nearly thirty years as chairman of what many on the reservation came to consider a dictatorship.

In February 1981, Roger and his Red Lake DFL Committee made legal history in the arena of campaign finance when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in the case of the
State of Minnesota, by its Minnesota State Ethical Practices Board v. The Red Lake DFL Committee (303 N.W.2d 54). In November 1978, the Red Lake DFL Committee purchased two full-page political advertisements in the Bemidji Pioneer, for “over $100.”  According to court records, the advertisements were addressed “TO ALL MINNESOTA INDIAN VOTERS” and urged “all the DFL'ers and Independents” to vote for the DFL candidates for governor, the state legislature, and the U.S. Congress.

The DFL Committee ignored requests that it comply with Minnesota laws governing campaign finance, so the Minnesota State Ethical Practices Board brought legal action seeking a mandatory injunction against the Committee and its then-treasurer, Lummy Oliver. In December 1979, committee president Roger Jourdain was served with papers when he was off-reservation (at Grand Rapids, Minnesota). Roger and his Committee ignored the state Ethical Practices Board and the state court proceedings.  After a default hearing, Roger and the DFL Committee were ordered to comply with state law when engaging in off-reservation political activity.  The court’s order was personally served on Roger in Bemidji. Soon after, the Committee moved to vacate the judgment, asserting the state court lacked jurisdiction over political activities taking place in Minnesota. The Ethical Practices Board, in turn, moved for an order finding the Committee and Roger in contempt for willful noncompliance with the December 17 order. On February 25, 1980, the state trial court filed an order finding that it properly had jurisdiction, and also concluding that the DFL Committee and Roger were in civil contempt for their failure to comply with an earlier order directing that the Committee register with the State Ethical Practices Board as a political committee or register a political fund, select and identify a treasurer in accordance with state law, and file a report of the Committee’s receipts and expenditures for 1978.

Roger and the Red Lake DFL Committee appealed. On February 13, 1981, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s determination that the Committee’s activities were subject to Minnesota statutes, writing that, “plainly, the activities put in motion by the Committee were not confined to the reservation nor were they intended to be so circumscribed.”   The Committee intended to cause “something to occur beyond the reservation boundaries, namely, the dissemination of a political message, which is the activity here sought to be regulated.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that, “even if some interference [with tribal self-government] had been shown, the public interest in protecting the integrity of the election process, particularly through disclosure of significant financial influences on elected officials, is a compelling public concern.”  When the Red Lake Band participates in state elections, it “has the same interest as other voters in the integrity of that process, and has a corresponding obligation to comply with state laws which govern that process and guard its integrity.”

Eight years later, in 1989, the Shakopee Sioux Community formed a PAC for the purpose of making political contributions to recipients outside the reservation.  In 1996, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board learned that a political party had received an undisclosed $27,500 contribution from the Shakopee PAC.  The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board informed Susan Totenhagen, then secretary-treasurer at Shakopee and treasurer of the PAC, that the Shakopee council was required to make disclosures pursuant to Minnesota state law governing contributions made by unregistered associations. The political party returned the $27,500 to the community council, which turned it over to the PAC, and the PAC contributed it to the political party, reporting the contribution but likewise making no financial disclosures to the Board.

The Campaign Finance Board informed Totenhagen that the Shakopee council was obliged either to register as a Committee and be subject to disclosure requirements or to provide financial disclosures to the PAC when supplying funds for political contributions. The tribal council then requested an advisory opinion.

In May 1998, the Campaign Finance Board issued Advisory Opinion 290, stating that the Shakopee community council is a “statutory association notwithstanding” the Shakopee Dakota community’s “status as a sovereign entity”; that is not required to register or to provide all the financial disclosures specified in Minnesota Statutes; but that it is required to “make modified disclosures concerning the sources of funds comprising political contributions including naming either the donating entity and the nature of its business or the donating individual.” The Board also issued an order requiring the PAC to either to return the $ 27,500 to Shakopee or to obtain disclosures of the sources of funds.

Attorneys for the Shakopee community council (and Mystic Lake casino) appealed – and lost.  On November 24, 1998, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that in the case Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community, et al. vs. Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (586 N.W.2d 406) that “an Indian tribe” is required “to make disclosures concerning the sources of funds used for political contributions pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 10A.20 (1996).”

And, on October 23, 2002, a complaint was filed with the Federal Elections Commission about campaign contributions made by Mille Lacs band chief executive Melanie Benjamin.

The complainants Hoch and Marble are influential in the organization “Citizens United for Baseball in Minnesota” and, reportedly, are interested in generating income from state-sponsored gambling operations to fund a new baseball stadium.

Are the campaign contributions made in Melanie Benjamin’s name the “third strike” for vested interests wielding unaccountable political power through tribal government’s unregistered campaign contributions in state and federal elections?

Just as Press/ON was going to press, Tadd Johnson, special counsel to the Mille Lacs Band in Hinkley, called this writer.  He explained the excess personal contributions allegedly made by Mille Lacs chief executive Melanie Benjamin to Congressman James Oberstar.

Johnson said that the April 5, 2002 contributions were done by the National Unity Caucus, an Indian PAC of which Melanie is treasurer, “so she signs the checks.”  But if the FEC recorded them as personal contributions, that’s incorrect, the attorney said. “She signed them as treasurer, and she did not contribute as an individual.”

The January 15, 2002 check, according to Johnson, is a Mille Lacs band check, he believes to be from the Mille Lacs band’s PAC, rather than Melanie Benjamin’s personal funds.

Johnson said that as far as he knows, Melanie has not made any political contributions as an individual.