Indian tribes invest heavily in California House race 6-24-07

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) - Indian tribes have spent more than $400,000 to support the U.S. House campaign of state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, federal records show.

Wealthy California tribes often donate to political campaigns, but the amount invested in the 37th District race has attracted attention in an otherwise low-profile contest.

State Assemblywoman Laura Richardson, one of Oropeza's chief rivals for the vacant seat, asked federal authorities Saturday to investigate the Indian expenditures. Campaign-finance records show virtually all of the money is coming from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which is financing newspaper ads, phone calls to voters and bulk mailings to promote Oropeza's candidacy.

A letter sent by Richardson to the U.S. Attorney's Office does not mention the Morongos by name but lists the money the tribe has invested in the race. It implies that the money is being spent in exchange for Oropeza's support for tribal gambling interests, but provides no evidence to support the claim.

Oropeza voted in April for legislation that would allow the Morongo tribe to more than triple the number of slot machines at its casino.

Parke Skelton, an Oropeza campaign spokesman, described the letter as a last-minute attempt to smear his candidate before Tuesday's election.

The tribal money is being used as “independent expenditures,” which are not subject to the donation limits imposed on candidates. Such spending is legal so long as there is no consultation with a candidate.

Oropeza's campaign said it is not coordinating with the tribes.

More than a dozen candidates are vying to succeed Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a Democrat who died in April. The heavily Democratic district includes Compton, Carson, parts of Los Angeles and much of Long Beach.

A Morongo spokesman, Patrick Dorinson, declined comment.