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?”
contributions is not new to Minnesota.
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.
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?
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.