Native Village  Youth and Education news
February 2010 Volume 3

Man who blew whistle on Abramoff tells the story of how he did it
By Susan Crabtree
Condensed by Native Village

Jack Abramoff

Tom Rodgers was instrumental in exposing one of Washington’s biggest scandals. His efforts landed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) in prison, forced Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from office, and helped Democrats take control of the House and Senate in 2006.

In the aftermath, Congress passed the most sweeping new ethics rules since Watergate.

But few knew of Rodgers involvement until he went public with his story in 2010.

Tom Rodgers

“We watched this all unfold and we remained quiet,” Rodgers said about his silence. “At that time, we were stereotyped as ignorant and greedy Indians. But we knew different … we knew the time to tell this story wasn’t then.”

It began in January, 2003, when Rodgers received a phone call from Bernie Sprague, the subchief of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe in Michigan.

“Tom, I was told I could trust you,” Sprague said. “Tom, we’re being threatened by our lobbyist.”

Sprague said Abramoff planned to sue him after Bernie questioned invoices and million dollar fees Abramoff charged to lobby for tribes in Washington.

Rodgers, a former Democratic staffer, then faced a difficult choice: meddling in Abramoff's business to help his friends, or remain silent. Abramoff was among the most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington. Those who confronted him risked paying a heavy political and personal price

But after hearing details about Abramoff’s schemes, threats and deception, Rodgers couldn’t turn away. He told a small group of trusted friends who worked on Capitol Hill what he was about to do. They cautioned him to be careful and warned him that he could lose everything.

Soon, the very tribes Abramoff lied to and stole from quietly began efforts to destroy him -- with the help of Rodgers, a trusted fellow Native American of mixed Blackfoot and Irish heritage. “We wanted to do something that would better our democracy and help Native Americans,” Rodgers stated.

In the meantime, Abramoff was familiar with Rodgers’s reputation for honesty and following the rules. He even called Rodgers a “moron” for doing so.

With the warnings in mind, Rodgers hired a respected lawyer, Philip Hilder.
 Hilder had represented Sharon Watkins, the whistleblower in the Enron case. He cautioned Rodgers to lay low -- or face the consequences.

“I judged him to be quite credible, but I also know the realities of Washington -- that if he would have reared his head, it would have been decapitated,” Hilder says.

Before Sprague had contacted him, Rodgers was already tracking Abramoff’s colorful exploits: his work for Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi; his work with an anti-communist film "Red Scorpion;" and his purchase of a fleet of casino boats and the death of the fleet's former Mafia owner.  (Abramoff was convicted in 2006 for fraud and conspiracy in the purchase of the SunCruz fleet.)

Rodgers also received critical information from Monica Quigley. Quigley was a longtime friend and former attorney for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. She had been fired after questioning Abramoff’s invoices and activities. She said the Saginaw Chippewa had been sending $2,000,000 checks to Abramoff to lobby for their tribe. The funds had been sent to Capitol Campaign Strategies, a public-relations group run by Michael Scanlon, Abramoff’s right-hand man.

When Sprague told him Capitol Campaign's address, Rodgers was immediately suspicious. He drove to the address.  What he found was a Mailboxes Etc.

“[Capital Campaign's] Suite 375 was seven inches high and 11 inches deep,” he said.

In the following months and years, Rodgers worked with the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, the Alabama Coushatta and the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana to gather internal invoices and documents. Then they contacted the BIA.

“We were told [by the BIA] that it was an internal affair,” Rodgers recalled. “I turned to [Vice Chairman of the Louisiana Coushatta tribe David Sickey and Sprague] on a conference call one night and said, ‘Now we need to go another way. We’ve accumulated the data; we have all the information we need. We need to leak it.’

So, slowly and strategically, they leaked the information to the media, beginning with the tribes' local media sources.

After the first local articles appeared, Rodgers sent manila folders with a packet of the articles, invoices and other documents to good-government groups well as the National Journal and The Washington Post. (The Post's Susan Schmidt eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for her series on the Abramoff scandal. )

Shortly after the first Post stories appeared, Philip Hilder provided the Justice Department with the same packet/   Sen. John McCain,  the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, quickly called for hearings to investigate Abramoff’s activities.

Rodgers then called up Pablo Carillo, the lead staffer on the committee’s investigation.

“How can I help you?” Carillo asked Rodgers when he picked up the phone.

“Actually, I believe I can help you,” Rodgers responded, telling him about the invoices and documents he had amassed.

“How soon can you be here?” Carillo responded.

The rest is history...

Following his years of silence, Rodgers is finally getting the experience off his chest. He decided to reveal his role because the Abramoff scandal may be coming to a close. Abramoff has served nearly four years in prison, with two more to go.

Rodgers also knows that critics might accuse him of destroying Abramoff  in order to steal his clients or benefit Democrats.  Rodgers insists that he would have spoken up no matter what party the players belonged to. He never received a cent from the tribes, nor has he taken them on as clients.  For Tom, it was a labor of love in protecting his people. He was simply outraged over the abuse of Native Americans whose heritage he shares.

“We did it when it mattered and we didn’t do it for money or for fame, and the records bear that out,” he said. “What’s important is that the tribes that were defrauded and cheated and abused did something about it,” he said.

Rodgers’s role was featured in a new documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” which premiered at Sundance. The film will be shown in Washington, D.C. later this year.

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