Cornyn denies ties to lobbyist
BY Maria Recio, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, April 17, 2005
WASHINGTON - The closing of the Speaking Rock Casino near El Paso in February 2002 was one of John Cornyn's proudest moments as Texas attorney general.
His determination to shut down the Tigua Indian tribe's casino because it was opened in violation of state law earned the Texas Republican kudos and pledges of support from Christian political organizers -- backing that proved helpful as Cornyn made his successful run for the U.S. Senate that year.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, for weeks has been in an all-out political war, defending himself from allegations of ethical lapses, many of them connected to the battle over tribal casinos.
But Cornyn's role in the casino controversy is only beginning to draw attention.
The shuttering of the Speaking Rock Casino is being explored by investigators for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, as well as a federal multi-agency task force and grand jury that are examining the actions of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations associate Mike Scanlon.
Abramoff and Scanlon had many Indian gaming clients, including the Tigua Ysleta de Sur Pueblo, as the Tigua are known. The lobbyists are at the center of a fraud and fundraising scandal that has embroiled DeLay.
Cornyn, elected senator in 2002, was supported in his anti-Speaking Rock effort by a grassroots campaign led by conservative Christian lobbyist Ralph Reed, who organized pastors around the state to oppose gaming and back the attorney general.
Senate investigators discovered that Abramoff hired Reed to block gaming expansion in Texas and Louisiana -- and that the $4 million that Reed was paid actually came from Abramoff's Indian gaming clients.
Then, Abramoff and Scanlon secured the Tigua as a client on the day the casino was closed and charged them $4.2 million for a campaign to reopen it through federal legislation.
In an interview, Cornyn said he was "unaware" of Reed's role in Texas although he knew Reed from GOP political circles.
"I, of course, had filed the lawsuit earlier on. That was already a done deal," Cornyn said. "It was nice to receive that support, but it didn't have much to do with what we were already doing."
Cornyn's office filed the lawsuit, charging the tribe with violating the anti-gambling terms of a law giving them federal recognition, in September 1999.
"I never met with him," Cornyn said of Reed, dismissing e-mail traffic in 2001 and 2002 between Reed and Abramoff that suggests a close alliance with the Texas attorney general during the lengthy court decisions and appeals.
"I'm sure my name has been taken in vain before, so I'm not surprised," said the Texas senator. "Maybe lobbyists were engaged in self-promotion. I was doing my duty to enforce the law."
Cornyn said that he does not recall any contact with Abramoff and did not know that the lobbyist contributed $1,000 to his 2002 campaign.
Despite Cornyn's image as a gaming foe, he received $6,250 in contributions for his 2002 race from Las Vegas casino interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled data from the Federal Election Commission. Some of the contributions were made at the same time Cornyn was pushing to close the Tigua casino.
Asked whether he opposes gambling, Cornyn replied: "No, not if it's in compliance with the law. It's legal to gamble in Nevada, and it's not legal to gamble in Texas."
During the 2002 campaign, Cornyn attended a fundraiser May 29, 2002, at the home of Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton in an event organized by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The contributions are a small part of the $9.8 million that Cornyn received in the 2002 race.
Asked about Abramoff's alleged double-dealings with the Tigua, Cornyn said, "Without prejudging, I find it somewhat disturbing."
In a series of e-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Cornyn's name appears numerous times in communications among Reed, Abramoff and Scanlon. As a result, he has drawn some criticism.
"Cornyn is getting a pass that he doesn't deserve," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, referring to the lack of attention to the senator's involvement.
"My concern is that he's working with Ralph Reed, who's being paid by Indian gaming interests," Sloan said.
On Nov. 12, 2001, Abramoff and Reed discussed strategy for supporting Cornyn. Reed writes Abramoff: "Great work. Get me details so I can alert Cornyn and let him know what we are doing to help him."
Cornyn said he had no contact with Reed.
Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, was hired by Abramoff, an old friend, who was working at the Greenberg Traurig law firm. The firm forced him out a year ago when it discovered Abramoff had hidden at least $10 million from Indian clients. Reed's company, Century Strategies, was paid by Scanlon's companies.
Reed denies knowing that he was being paid by Indian tribes. "Jack hired Ralph to organize a grassroots coalition to close one casino and prevent another casino from opening," said Lisa Baron, Reed's spokeswoman, "which was in line with Ralph's philosophical views and grassroots business."
However, in an e-mail sent Jan. 7, 2002, there is the suggestion that Reed knew who he was working for. Reed wrote Abramoff: "Hope these developments help with client.
"We are proud of the work we did in closing the casino," Baron said. "We did not know of any specific clients or any specific interests involved. We are in the business of closing casinos.
"How would we know where the money was coming from?"
Reed is well-connected politically. A former Georgia GOP chairman, he was the Southeast regional campaign chairman for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign.
The Louisiana Coushattas paid Reed $3 million, fearing casino competition from another tribe in Louisiana and the expansion of gaming in Texas, which would probably draw gamblers away.
The Louisiana Coushattas, who paid Abramoff and Scanlon more than $30 million, have sued Abramoff, Scanlon, and Greenberg Traurig, accusing them of a variety of abuses, including fraud, overbilling and negligence.