WASHINGTON -- The top Senate Democrat investigating Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying met several times with the lobbyist's team and clients, held a fund-raiser in Abramoff's arena skybox, and arranged congressional help for one of the tribes, records show.
Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota acknowledges he got Congress in fall 2003 to press government regulators to decide, after decades of delay, whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition.
Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and collected at least $11,500 in political donations from Abramoff partner Michael D. Smith, who was representing the Mashpee, around the time he helped craft the legislation, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The senator didn't reimburse the Mississippi Choctaw for the use of Abramoff's skybox in 2001, when the tribe threw him a fundraiser there, instead treating it as a tribal contribution. He recently reimbursed the tribe for the box, four years later, after determining it was connected to Abramoff.
Dorgan says he sees no reason to step down from the Abramoff investigation, which he and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, are leading. He said he had no idea at the time that any of the transactions were connected to Abramoff or the alleged fleecing of tribes.
''I never met Jack Abramoff, but I am appalled by what we have learned about his actions," Dorgan said yesterday. ''So I have never felt there was any conflict in my helping to lead that investigation. I think Senator McCain would agree our investigation has been relentless and that neither of us will be diverted."
Dorgan's contacts, donations, and fund-raisers involving Abramoff tribal clients and lobbying associates, as well as those of other lawmakers, have not been examined during the Senate hearings into the lobbyist's roughly $80 million in charges to the tribes.
The senator didn't volunteer the information, although he did disclose his donations in campaign reports over the years.
Larry Noble, the government's former chief election enforcement lawyer, said Dorgan should have considered stepping aside from the inquiry and at the very least should have disclosed all his own intersections with Abramoff's associates and tactics.
''I think any way you look at it he had an obligation to disclose," Noble said.
Dorgan knew the fund-raiser was sponsored by the Choctaw and that two Abramoff lobbyists attended, but at the time he didn't know they were connected to Abramoff, his spokesman said. ''He was told the skybox was the Choctaws'," Barry Piatt said.
Dorgan's office acknowledged he met in 2003 with representatives of the Mashpee, the Massachusetts tribe that Abramoff signed as a client and Smith represented. The tribe was trying to persuade the US government to rule on its decades-old request to be formally recognized.
The senator used his position as a member of the joint House-Senate committee that approved the final Interior Department spending bill for 2004 to craft a provision that pressed the agency to ''complete its review of the Mashpee petition as expeditiously as possible."
''Absolutely he was involved. The tribe asked him to be involved and the Massachusetts senators supported it," said spokesman Barry Piatt. ''They had 29 years of waiting. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do."
Piatt said he didn't think Dorgan's help was significant, because the action didn't order Interior to make a specific conclusion, only urged it to act more quickly.
But the Mashpee say the lobbying paid off because Dorgan's provision prompted Interior to speed its decision-making process. The tribe credits Dorgan and one of his colleagues, Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, another frequent recipient of Abramoff tribal donations, for the provision.