Bluster may be on point J.D. worked for tribes' money

Doug MacEachern The Arizona Republic Jan. 15, 2006 12:00 AM

I once received a telephone message from J.D. Hayworth. I remember it as orchestral, building to a furious crescendo over my transgression, a column about him.

I recall nothing of the column subject, other than the fact that J.D. had an actual point to make about something I'd gotten wrong. Beyond that, it was all crashing cymbals, maddened and accelerating drumbeats and shrieking French horns full on for the two-minute limit of the tape. Even now I visualize J.D. on the other end of the phone ... in white tie and tails and whipping his arms around like Leonard Bernstein, sweat pouring from him. It was a majestic verbal browbeating. I'm glad I wasn't there when he called.

J.D. is in some trouble. Or on the verge of trouble. It may be big, although for reasons I'll get to shortly, it probably shouldn't be.

In classic J.D. fashion, he is defending himself with blustery, snorting-bull defiance. To those who contend the congressional representative of District 5 accepted more than $100,000 from "sources tied to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff," J.D. is thumbing his nose. He got $2,250 directly from Abramoff from 1998 to 1999. That money he has shipping to charity. The rest - contributed by various Indian tribes, including $2,000 from a tribe shamelessly ripped off by Abramoff - stays. For now, anyway.

We will see how long the defiance thing works if federal investigators prove serious about pursuing lawmakers who accepted either Abramoff campaign money or his golf-trip bric-a-brac "in exchange for official acts." In a Washington Times story last week, Hayworth was identified as one of five lawmakers whom investigators consider in a "top tier" of officials tied to Abramoff.

That sounds very serious, of course. And it may be. Maybe a lot of disgusting skullduggery will be revealed about these "top tier" offenders, including Hayworth, and the evidence will be made plain that they accepted who-knows-what "in exchange for official acts." Indeed, the fact that Hayworth neglected to adequately report all those fund-raisers in Abramoff's skyboxes is not a good sign.

But just as when J.D. read me the riot act years ago, he is acting tough and blustery for what seems to be a pretty good reason, at least absent damning evidence of Abramoff-related quid pro quo. J.D. Hayworth gets a lot of financial contributions from Indian tribes because since his first year in Congress in 1994, Hayworth treated Indian issues as though tribes are among his most important constituents. And, considering that Native Americans constituted almost 25 percent of his constituents when he first ran for Congress, he is probably not wrong to think so.

Americans recoil from visions of their Congress members raking in tens of thousands of dollars from "interest groups." It is almost as though we make no distinction between the collection of money for campaigning and money some unscrupulous politician secrets into his own pocket. As a Republic reader wrote a few days ago, it all goes to "buy" politicians:

"The impression Americans have of their congressional representatives is that the less honest among them become fabulously wealthy on a salary that can't make them into millionaires without cash on the side," she wrote, adding that "our representatives are getting only pennies on the dollar for selling out America."

That's a tough indictment, but not quite a fair one.

As a society, we have placed awesome powers and trillions of our dollars in the hands of Congress.

Just last week we saw a bit of that power drama played out in a committee of the U.S. Senate. Millions of Americans have willingly paid out billions of dollars to influence what happened in that committee. So here's a guess: If a billion dollars more spent on political campaigns would have ensured that Democrats right now would have a majority in the Senate to face down President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, do you suppose Democrats would have raised that money and spent it happily? It is impossible to imagine they wouldn't.

Despite this wild obsession with Washington, we somehow are shocked when the lawmakers whose election we deem so vital actually take steps to ensure that they stay where we sent them. We have made Congress a "partner" in virtually every sector of society. We turn to Washington for nearly every solution to every ill. Yet when lawmakers take that investment in power seriously by raising a lot of money to stay where we want them to be, we call them "bought."

In that context, then, it is amazing to think of a member of Congress as having been "bought" by Indian tribes. When in the history of American politics has a federal official been accused of being in the pockets of Indian tribes?

Tribal casino money is an amazing thing. But so, too, are tribal votes, which stirred Hayworth in the first place to found the Native American Caucus in the House, to have an epiphany about Indian gaming, to become the go-to guy in the House for Indians when they wanted to fight federal income-tax proposals and to get a bigger share of Western water rights.

When, or if, federal prosecutors come a'calling for J.D., they will probably get a snootful of attitude for their trouble.

But unless they have some Abramoff dirt we have yet to see, Hayworth is right to play the snorting bull.

Indian tribes have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to Hayworth's power-building campaign committees and political action committees. People who just raised and spent more than $500 million to elect John Kerry president find this appalling.

Kerry lost. In Hayworth's tenure, tribes have exploded with casino wealth, landed extraordinary water rights in Arizona and fended off the federal taxman. Who's more worth his "purchase" price to his voters?

Doug MacEachern is a Republic editorial writer. Reach him at or (602) 444-8883.

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