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Begich campaign, super PAC get boosts from California tribe

Nathaniel Herz
Alaska's junior senator, Mark Begich, addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Fairbanks on Oct 25, 2013. One of the largest donors to a PAC supporting Begich's re-election campaign is a California tribe that says the senator "does beautiful work for Native Americans." Loren Holmes photo

The third-largest donor to the super PAC supporting U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is a casino owned by a 270-member California tribe that has also made large contributions to Begich’s campaign and to the Alaska Democratic Party.

The San Pablo Lytton Casino near Oakland, owned by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, gave $25,000 to the pro-Begich Put Alaska First PAC in April, according to federal filings published last week.

The casino had already given $32,500 to Put Alaska First since last July, and it has also donated $5,200 to Begich’s own campaign, $5,000 to another fundraising committee controlled by him and $10,000 to the Alaska Democratic Party.

The Lytton tribe has a group of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., working on federal issues including land use, taxation and gaming.

Tom Rodgers, a Virginia-based lobbyist and spokesman for the Lytton tribe, said in a phone interview that the money has been directed toward Begich simply because “you couldn’t find a better champion for Indian Country.”

“He understands us,” Rodgers said. “We have not asked Sen. Begich for anything, and I would swear that out in any statement.”

Begich, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is running for re-election in November. Three serious Republican candidates are on the Aug. 19 primary ballot.

Begich has come under fierce attacks by Republican and conservative groups, and Put Alaska First has run its own ads touting Begich’s record and attacking GOP front-runner Dan Sullivan.

The vast majority of Put Alaska First’s money -- some $4 million -- was given by the Washington, D.C.-based Senate Majority PAC, which is run by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

Another $57,500 has come from the Lytton Casino, which sits north of Oakland and contains more than 1,000 electronic gambling machines. It’s estimated to generate more than $180 million in annual income.

The tribe lost its land in the early 1960s when the U.S. government dissolved its 50-acre settlement north of the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s now asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve an application to put 124 acres of the tribe’s land near the California town of Windsor, near Santa Rosa, under federal protection, for a reservation that would include a cultural center and more than 100 homes.

If the application is deemed ineligible, the tribe could also get federal protection through an act of Congress, said Kevin Bearquiver, deputy regional director for the BIA’s Pacific region, in Sacramento.

“They’ve discussed doing it both ways,” he said in a phone interview.

The Lytton Band hasn’t asked Begich about its application, Rodgers said.

The senator visited the Lytton tribe’s office near Santa Rosa on a trip to the West Coast last year, and his campaign covered the travel costs, spokesman Max Croes said in an email. Begich has met the tribe’s chairperson, Rodgers said.

Officials in Windsor are in discussions with the tribe about connecting town water and sewer infrastructure to its land. Vice Mayor Steve Allen said in a phone interview that he would prefer the tribe develop its land under the town's guidelines rather than under federal protection, the latter of which he said would free the tribe from having to abide by local land-use restrictions.

“We would much rather have them come in under our auspices,” he said.

Murkowski, Young also receive tribal donations

The tribe’s casino has made five-figure contributions to a few other independent groups, like Put Alaska First, which aren’t allowed to coordinate their efforts with candidates. It also supports candidates directly, and most of its recent donations have gone toward Democrats.

Begich “stands out on the list as being one of the top recipients,” said Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., which tracks campaign spending.

“They appear to be concentrating more effort than you would expect, for a group of their size and influence, in one person,” she said.

Native American tribes have been a growing presence in national politics over the last decade, Bryner said, reflecting the growth in tribal casinos.

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that, nationally, Indian gaming interests made more than $14 million in contributions in the two-year election cycle ending in 2012, with about $300,000 coming from the Lytton Band and its affiliates.

Donations identified by Begich’s campaign as coming from tribes amount to about $100,000 since the senator was elected in 2008; over the same period, tribes have donated $30,000 to Alaska's other senator, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and roughly $200,000 to Alaska Rep. Don Young, both of whom are Republicans.

Murkowski also sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which has jurisdiction over legislation that relates to land management, health care and economic development.

Young is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

Neither Murkowski nor Young has received contributions from the Lytton Band or its casino dating back to 2009.

Last month, the House Ethics Committee found that Young had violated congressional rules by using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses on hunting trips, one of which was to a New Mexico lodge run by an Indian tribe that also operates casino facilities.

Begich 'vocal and effective' on Native issues

The Lytton Band’s offer of support for Put Alaska First came more than a year ago, said Jim Lottsfeldt, the Anchorage-based consultant who runs the group. He ultimately met Rodgers for tacos on a trip to Washington, D.C., Lottsfeldt said.

Rodgers, who also represents the National Indian Gaming Association, said he is a member of the Blackfoot Tribe and has been described as a key whistleblower in exposing Jack Abramoff, the powerful lobbyist for Native Americans whose corruption was uncovered a decade ago.

Rodgers said he has long been a supporter of Begich, dating back to his initial Senate campaign in 2008 when he was running against Republican Sen. Ted Stevens -- though the $4,600 in contributions to Begich’s campaign in that race came from another California group Rodgers represents, the Tule River Tribal Council.

The $10,000 the Lytton Band donated to the Alaska Democratic Party also was aimed at supporting Begich, Rodgers said. A spokesman for the party did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about how Begich had been a champion of Native American issues, Rodgers referred to “his statements on voting rights” and his work on “land” and “water.”

“We just want to see a man or a woman support Native Americans because for so long it never occurred in this country,” Rodgers said. “Here’s a guy who is gifted and does beautiful work for Native Americans.”

Anchorage attorney Lloyd Miller, who specializes in tribal law, said Begich is generally viewed as “one of the more vocal and effective legislators in the Senate” on Native American issues.

Miller cited the fact that Begich had placed a hold on President Barack Obama’s renomination of the director of the Indian Health Service and pressed the IHS to settle outstanding claims by tribes.

Begich has also sponsored legislation this year to protect Native American voting rights, with provisions that include ensuring ballot translation, and allowing Native Americans to use tribal identification to vote in states where identification is required -- though the legislation appears to have little chance of being enacted.

Lytton Band Chairwoman Margie Mejia did not respond to requests for an interview, and Rodgers said he is the only person authorized to speak for the tribe.

Other Lytton Band lobbyists did not return phone calls.

Campaign: 'Sen. Begich votes for Alaska'

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show the tribe spent $420,000 on lobbying the federal government, including the Senate and House of Representatives, in 2013. Federal disclosures do not include information about which senators or representatives were lobbied, Bryner said.

Issues the Lytton Band has lobbied on include appropriations from the Indian Health Service, legislation that would make it easier for some tribes to get federal protection for their land and a bill that would establish a program for federally recognized tribes to license Internet poker.

Croes, the spokesman for Begich’s campaign, said the Lytton Band has not met with the senator in Washington, and added that Begich had not voted on any legislation specifically pertaining to the tribe.

“He has always championed Alaska Native and American Indian issues,” Croes wrote in an email.

Asked if Begich had taken any official action on behalf of the Lytton Band, Croes responded in an email: “Your insinuation that Sen. Begich has acted ‘on behalf’ of this group in the U.S. Senate is dead wrong.”

“Sen. Begich votes for Alaska in the U.S. Senate,” Croes said. “No campaign contribution alters his belief we should develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his staunch defense of the Second Amendment or fight for Alaska’s middle class families, seniors, women and Alaska Natives.”

Begich has raised more than $6 million for his campaign since he was first elected in 2008, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, which have not been updated with data from three months ending June 30, during which Begich raised more than $1 million.

Sullivan has raised $2.5 million toward his run, according to FEC filings, plus more than $1 million in the three months ending June 30.

More than $5 million has been spent on the Senate race by groups independent of the candidates in 2014 alone. More than half of that money has been spent by Put Alaska First to attack Sullivan, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.