Jack Abramoff went to prison on that charge. So did an aide to Tom DeLay. They conspired to defraud Indian Tribes of honest services.
In Western New York, wealthy corporate gaming interests have been conspiring to defraud the Seneca Nation of an asset—regional exclusivity rights—that the Nation purchased in a 2002 gaming compact.
Those executives, development interests, and investors have conspired with politicians, state legislators, local governments, Albany lobbyists, and media operatives to defraud the Seneca Nation of this asset. In that aim, they've opened competing gaming venues in blatant violation of the 2002 compact; they've contributed money to influence Albany politicians; they've spent big on media propaganda; and they've effectively stolen this asset from a vulnerable and still impoverished people.
They are the modern day manifestation of Indian land thieves – people who get rich on the racist and untrue premise that Indians are too stupid to realize they're being cheated. That's what's characterized much of Native political history, to the extent that the Supreme Court has enshrined the "federal trust responsibility" into the cannons of federal Indian law, explicitly to protect Indians from state governments, mainstream politicians, and local business interests.
That's what will make this a matter of high politics, and why it's interesting enough to pay attention to.
Will the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to investigate?
In 2006, when allegations against the powerful and connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff emerged, John McCain used the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to launch investigations and hold hearings that put several conspirators in federal prison for their scheme involving excessive lobbying fees.
Why would John McCain bother with this? Well, Senator McCain wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 and has long championed Indian issues, so he understands why states can't tax tribes and why, if states want to profit from Indian gaming, they must do so by selling the tribe a legitimate asset. He certainly would be offended by such an elaborate, contorted, and deliberate scheme to defraud the Seneca Nation.
But the more central motivation would be politics. This is an opportunity for the Republican Party to play hard ball on the national stage. It would elevate a "corrupt-Democrat-machine-style" scandal to the national discourse—implicating the most popular Democrat Governor in the United States, and perhaps that party's most formidable general election contender. The free media would be priceless, and could take a potential frontrunner out of the political equasion for 2016.
And who knows how many other elected officials would be implicated once the investigation gets rolling. It could really create the space for the New York GOP to make a move—all the while protecting vulnerable minorities from Democrats and their corporate contributors.
Will the Seneca Nation seek civil damages? As a result of this elaborate fraud, corporate gaming interests have been able to build casinos in Hamburg, Batavia, and the Finger Lakes, well within the Seneca Nation's exclusivity zone—effectively a theft of hundreds of millions of dollars. Potential defendants of a civil action could include the gaming companies operating those venues, and the lobbyists that they've hired on this issue. And of course, criminal charges can always be filed against the governor—regardless of any arbitration clause in the gaming compact.
So, we'll see how this plays out…
Matthew Ricchiazzi holds an MBA in Finance and Private Equity from Cornell University's Graduate School of Management and a BS in Urban & Regional Planning from Cornell's College of Architecture. He has worked with Seneca Holdings, the private equity investment vehicle of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and with the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC. He is an enrolled member of Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken, Ontario (Cayuga, bear clan), and by treaty right is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.