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Kelpie Wilson: Republican Gold-Diggers Hit Wall

Republican Gold-Diggers Hit the Wall

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 12 January 2005

Believe it or not, the looting of a continent and its people that began with Columbus more than 500 years ago is not done yet. Today's gold-seekers may look different from Spain's conquistadors, but they are of the same breed.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff likes to quote characters from the Godfather. At his recent court appearance in New York, he wore a black trench coat and hat, and at his Florida indictment he wore a gangsta-style baseball cap. This choice of attire started a media buzz that he was paying homage to his gangster heroes, though others say the hats are part of a religious observance.

House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) wears a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots. He is unambiguously proud of his ranching heritage - those wranglers who turned endless herds of hooved locusts loose upon a verdant West, transforming it into the dry, impoverished landscape we see today.

And then there is Italia Federici, a bit player but an important one. This young woman with her long, blond hippie hair, a zaftig Ann Coulter, impersonates an environmentalist. She is the executive director of a putative environmental organization - Coalition of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA). CREA was founded in 1997 by a group that included Republican operative Grover Norquist and the current Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton. Federici worked on Norton's 1996 Senate campaign.

CREA is funded primarily by huge donations from Native American tribes, yet it does no environmental work related to tribal concerns.

On November 16, after chasing Ms. Federici with a subpoena for several days, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee finally heard her testimony about her involvement with Jack Abramoff, the tribes, and her contacts with Gale Norton's Deputy Interior Secretary, Steven Griles. Hundreds of emails obtained by the committee documented Federici's role as a fixer working for Abramoff: Abramoff declaring that she had "juice" in Interior, asking her to get Griles to "put the kibosh" on a rival casino that threatened one of his tribal clients, and telling her to call Griles and ask him to hold up an environmental impact statement on another rival casino.

In return for this constant stream of favors, Abramoff had his tribal clients donate almost half a million dollars to CREA. When Senator McCain asked Federici what the tribes had to do with her group's environmental mission, she came up with the laughably inane and certifiably insulting response that "well, Native Americans have always been associated with the environment."

Under questioning, she admitted that she had never met with any of the tribal donors to find out what their environmental interests were. And that, in fact, she had been told by Abramoff that the tribes "didn't want to be bothered" to meet with her.

When the senators expressed their disbelief in this arrangement and its total lack of accountability, Federici responded that it was just the incredible generosity of Native American people: "You know, like Thanksgiving is a celebration of Native American generosity."

With that Thanksgiving quip, did Federici have the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts in mind? The Mashpee, whose ancestors participated in the first Thanksgiving, had been unable to obtain official federal recognition of their tribe. They hired Abramoff and donated a total of $27,000 to Rep. Pombo, who passed a special bill through his House Resources Committee that would have granted them tribal status.

Rep. Pombo also benefited from CREA's "environmental advocacy." Last September, when Pombo introduced his legislation to destroy the Endangered Species Act, CREA issued a misleading press release that implied the bill had environmentalists' support. Here's a quote from the Sierra Club's response:

"Sierra Club was surprised and deeply disappointed when ... the industry front group Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) issued a press statement claiming that Sierra Club and other environmental groups support Rep. Pombo's bill. This is a blatant attempt to distort our position and to quell the growing criticism of Rep. Pombo's efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act. To bolster their absurd claim, CREA pulled quotes from a letter to Members of Congress dated September 20 in which 36 environmental groups urged members to vote against Rep. Pombo's bill. Sierra Club and the 35 other groups remain adamantly opposed to Representative Pombo's bill."

Richard Pombo won his congressional seat in 1991 on a property rights agenda. In a profile of Pombo for High Country News, Matt Weiser wrote: "He has been the loudest in a small but vocal mob determined to drag America's environmental laws out behind the tool shed." Pombo campaigned on the slogan "This Land is Our Land," perverting Woody Guthrie's working class anthem in the service of the gold-digging class. His latest, most outrageous maneuver was to attach a rider to the budget reconciliation bill that would have sold off huge chunks of wilderness and national parks to miners and developers. This land is their land, in Pombo's eyes.

One extraordinary tale of Pombo's service to the resource-extracting interests was revealed last week by LA Times reporters Richard A. Serrano and Stephen Braun. It is the story of a big Republican campaign donor whose name is very familiar to those who follow the fate of California's last redwoods. It's the story of Texas corporate raider Charles Hurwitz, who with the help of convicted felon Michael Millken looted and crashed the United Savings Association of Texas, costing taxpayers $1.6 billion. Hurwitz used the money to buy, among other things, the Pacific Lumber Company. He grabbed the workers' pension fund and tripled the cut of the last unprotected redwoods.

In 1995, the FDIC started to catch up with Hurwitz on the S&L crime. They wanted some of the taxpayer's money back and pursued him in court. Meanwhile, some environmentalists suggested that the taxpayers take their payment in living redwoods to be preserved as the Headwaters Forest.

For a time, it seemed that Hurwitz was interested in discussing this solution, but according to the LA Times report, in 1999 Tom DeLay wrote a letter to the FDIC chairman denouncing the investigation. What happened next is unprecedented in its naked corruption. DeLay protégés Pombo and John Doolittle (R-Calif.) subpoenaed confidential FDIC documents and entered them into the congressional record, exposing the government's case to the defendant's lawyers. Eventually, the FDIC had to drop the case.

When contacted by reporters on Monday of this week, Pombo said he hadn't been trying to block the federal investigation of Hurwitz's failed S&L but was just trying to keep the government from wrongly seizing the man's property. According to Pombo, this land is Hurwitz's land and anyone who says otherwise is some kind of eco-thug. In his statement on the House floor in 2001, Pombo said that the FDIC was using what he called "tools equivalent to the Cosa Nostra - a mafia tactic."

And that brings us back to Jack Abramoff. What are we to make of a man who identified so strongly with the fictional character of the Godfather that he created his own "signature" restaurant like a mafia don and even went so far as to involve himself in a shady Florida business deal complete with gangland-style killings?

Federici, Pombo and Abramoff are caricatures of an American type that is at odds with our ideals of democracy and freedom. This land has always been a land of opportunity for its settlers, but too often opportunity morphed into pure greed and the result has been a trail of tears for American natives, the poor, and the land itself.

The quest for gold and resources that drove the miners and the merchants and the flim-flam men all the way to the Pacific Ocean is at an end. There just isn't much left to take. But going after the little bit that is left has a huge price. For the last oil we will pay with our wildlife refuges and clean coasts. For the last timber we'll pay with slaughtered forests and silted salmon streams. For the last gold we will pay with vast pits of toxic waste and the West's scarce and precious aquifers.

It's time to stop the gold-diggers.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. She is also a mechanical engineer and does technical writing for the solar power industry. She has been a leader in the campaign to protect ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and was the executive director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project. Her first novel, Primal Tears, has been published by North Atlantic Books.

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