By Suzanne Gamboa
The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 12, 2006, 7:40 PM
WASHINGTON – A Texas Indian tribe filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and their associates engaged in fraud and racketeering to shut down the tribe’s casino.
The Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Livingston, Texas, alleged the defendants defrauded the tribe, the people of Texas and the Legislature to benefit another of Abramoff’s clients – the Louisiana Coushatta Tribe – and “line their pockets with money.”
“Ultimately, the defendants’ greed and corruption led to the Alabama-Coushatta tribe permanently shutting its casino. The funding for economic programs evaporated, over 300 jobs were lost in Polk County and the Alabama-Coushatta tribe has spent years struggling to recover and revitalize its economy through other means,” the tribe said in its lawsuit, obtained by The Associated Press.
The lawsuit also names Abramoff’s ex-business partner Michael Scanlon, a former aide to former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas; Neil Volz, a former aide to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; and John Van Horne, Abramoff’s former colleague at his law and lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Although the tribe alleges Greenberg Traurig was part of the scheme, it did not name the firm as a defendant. Attorney Fred Petti said the tribe is in settlement discussions with the firm.
The tribe did not specify how much money it is seeking in the lawsuit. Petti said it is asking for the amount of revenue it lost since it was forced to close down its casino. The casino operated for only nine months and shut down in 2002.
“It’ll be in the tens if not the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
Without its casino, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe has lost opportunities to improve housing, roads and education programs for its members, said tribal chairwoman Jo Ann Battise.
“What we’re looking for through this lawsuit is the right to make our own decisions, the right to run our own gaming operations, the right to have the same opportunity as other tribes across the nation,” Battise said in Austin, Texas, where the lawsuit was filed.
Abramoff, Scanlon and Volz have pleaded guilty in a public corruption probe involving Abramoff’s former tribal clients and possibly members of Congress. The Alabama-Coushatta never hired Abramoff.
The Alabama-Coushatta’s casino, on its reservation north of Houston, was closed in 2002 by a federal court ruling in a 1999 lawsuit filed by the state’s then attorney general, John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator.
The Alabama-Coushatta said Abramoff and others conspired to defeat a bill in the 2001 Legislature that would have allowed it to operate gaming on its reservation. Reed helped to rally Christians against the bill with a group he formed, Committee Against Gambling, the tribe alleged.
The tribe, which says it has strong Christian values, alleges Reed’s group called state legislators, sent targeted mailings to voters and ran radio ads against the bill without revealing their true origins, preventing the tribe from fighting back.
“They made it appear as if they were operating on behalf of religious groups, but in fact they were operating on behalf of the Louisiana-Coushatta,” Petti said.
Lisa Baron, communications director of the Reed for Lt. Governor campaign, said in a statement: “This frivolous lawsuit is utterly without merit. The illegal casino violated Texas and federal law and was ordered closed by a federal judge. As a longtime opponent of casino gambling, Reed was happy to work with Texas pro-family citizens to close it.”
Attempts to get comment on Abramoff’s behalf were not immediately successful.
Reed’s work made the opposition to the tribe’s casino appear to be based on Christian concerns, not competitive concerns from its sister tribe, the Alabama-Coushatta said.
Had the public or tribe known the Louisiana Coushatta tribe was the main opponent, Christian groups would have been “less mobilized.” Because the Texas and Louisiana tribes share family ties, Louisiana Coushatta members would have opposed the attack on their sister tribe, the Alabama-Coushatta said.
“They pitted Christian against Christian, tribe against tribe and cousin against cousin,” the tribe said.
The tribe also alleges that Abramoff fraudulently bilked it of $50,000 and used it to “bribe” Ney with a golfing trip to Scotland in exchange for “fixing” its gaming problem. In his guilty plea, Abramoff said Ney accepted the trip knowing the tribal clients paid for the trip. Ney has repeatedly said he is innocent of wrongdoing.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court’s western district of Texas in Austin.