Inquiries of Top Lobbyist Shine Unwelcome Light in Congress
Published on Monday, April 11, 2005 by the New York Times
Inquiries of Top Lobbyist Shine Unwelcome Light in Congress
by Philip Shenon
 

WASHINGTON, April 10 -- Jack Abramoff, one of Washington's most powerful and best-paid lobbyists, needed $100,000 in a hurry.

Mr. Abramoff, known to envious competitors as "Casino Jack" because of his multimillion-dollar lobbying fees from the gambling operations of American Indians, wrote to a Texas tribe in June 2002 to say that a member of Congress had "asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff" that summer. "The trip will be quite expensive," Mr. Abramoff said in the e-mail message, estimating that the bills "would be around $100K or more." He added that in 2000, "We did this for another member - you know who."

Mr. Abramoff did not explain why the tribe should pay for the lavish trip, nor did he identify the congressmen by name. But a tribe spokesman has since testified to Congress that the 2002 trip was organized for Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, and that "you know who" was a much more powerful Republican, Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader and old friend of Mr. Abramoff's. Both lawmakers have said they believed that the trips complied with House travel rules.

The e-mail message of June 7, 2002, is part of a mountain of evidence gathered in recent months by the Justice Department, the Interior Department and two Senate committees in influence-peddling and corruption investigations centered on Mr. Abramoff, a former college Republican campaigner turned B-movie producer turned $750-an-hour Washington super-lobbyist.

Although there is no suggestion in public documents that any lawmaker is the target of a federal grand jury that is investigating Mr. Abramoff, disclosures about his lobbying activities have become embarrassing to prominent members of Congress.

In recent weeks, Mr. Ney, Mr. DeLay and other lawmakers have gone on the offensive against the suggestion that their actions on Capitol Hill were influenced by foreign travel or other gifts from Mr. Abramoff.

Disclosures about Mr. Abramoff and the grand jury investigation in Washington have come at an especially awkward time for Mr. DeLay, who is facing scrutiny by a state grand jury in Texas that has indicted two of his chief political operatives, including the director of his political action committee, on charges of illegal fund-raising. Mr. DeLay has blamed Democrats and the "liberal media" for stirring up old - and, he says, discredited - ethics accusations against him.

House Republican leaders say they stand behind Mr. DeLay, although there are signs of concern elsewhere in the party. A moderate Republican who has often tangled with the majority leader, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, called on Mr. DeLay to step down from his leadership post, telling The Associated Press in an interview on Sunday that "Tom's conduct is hurting the Republican Party, is hurting the Republican majority, and it is hurting any Republican who is up for re-election."

In an interview on ABC, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said Mr. DeLay needed to answer questions about his conduct. "I think he has to come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves," Mr. Santorum said. "From everything I've heard, again, from the comments and responding to those, is everything he's done was according to the law."

A spokesman for Mr. DeLay, Dan Allen, was quoted by The Associated Press on Sunday as saying that the majority leader "looks forward to the opportunity of sitting down with the ethics committee" in the House "to get the facts out and to dispel the fiction and innuendo that's being launched at him by House Democrats and their liberal allies."

Members of the Senate are also feeling pressure over their ties to Mr. Abramoff. Last month, Democratic leaders in Montana demanded that Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who is considered vulnerable in his re-election bid next year, return $137,000 in donations from Mr. Abramoff and his American Indian clients.

In the House, several Republicans have been forced to explain why they and their senior staff members accepted gifts from Mr. Abramoff, including the use of his skyboxes at Washington sports arenas, trips to the Super Bowl, and meals at Signatures, Mr. Abramoff's restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mr. DeLay played golf with Mr. Abramoff at St. Andrews Links in Scotland in 2000 as part of a $70,000 trip that included Mr. DeLay's wife and staff. The trip was paid for by a conservative group close to Mr. Abramoff, who was once described by Mr. DeLay as being among his "closest and dearest friends." Mr. Ney golfed at St. Andrews two years later.

Government investigators say the Justice Department is leading a task force that is trying to determine if Mr. Abramoff and a business partner, Michael Scanlon, a former spokesman for Mr. DeLay, bilked the Indian tribes, in part by having them make extravagant gifts to members of Congress, as well as to their favorite charities and political action committees.

Neither Mr. Abramoff nor Mr. Scanlon would comment, although a spokesman for Mr. Abramoff said he was being singled out for actions that are common in Washington.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has been investigating Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon for months, has determined that the two men received $66 million in lobbying fees and other payments from six tribes across the country, a sum that has drawn outrage from committee members. "For these two men, it was seemingly all about the money," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the panel.

Government investigators say that more than 30 F.B.I. agents have worked with the task force, which also involves the Treasury Department, the Interior Department and the Internal Revenue Service, and that the work of the grand jury has accelerated in recent weeks. Although Indian tribes are allowed to make donations to lawmakers and their political committees, a donation or other gift arranged by Mr. Abramoff to buy a vote or other specific action on Capitol Hill could be a crime.

Investigators say a separate inquiry is being conducted by the inspector general's office at the Interior Department, which is trying to determine if Mr. Abramoff improperly pressured the department on behalf of Indian clients through donations to a conservative lobbying organization established by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton before she joined the Bush administration.

The scrutiny of Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon began in late 2003, when a newspaper in Alexandria, La., The Town Talk, reported that a local Indian tribe had paid Mr. Scanlon $13.7 million for a year's public relations work. The report drew the attention of other news organizations, notably The Washington Post and The National Journal, as well as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Mr. Ney, known as "the mayor of Capitol Hill" because his committee oversees Congressional staff payrolls and office space, has said he was "duped" by Mr. Abramoff, while Mr. DeLay has said that "if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately." Mr. Abramoff, he added, "has never been on my payroll."

Mr. DeLay's 2000 trip to Britain, which included a meeting in London with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington-based group that says it was "honored" that Mr. DeLay accepted its invitation for the trip to Britain.

The center has long been affiliated with Mr. Abramoff, who served on its board of directors, and has received large donations from his Indian clients, including $25,000 that arrived at the center within days of Mr. DeLay's departure for Britain. The center has said the money for the trip was drawn from its general budget, not specifically from donations from tribes.

Other overseas trips by Mr. DeLay have also drawn scrutiny, including a six-day visit to Moscow in 1997 that, according to his disclosure statements, was also paid for by the center. Documents gathered by public-interest groups suggest that the trip may actually have been paid for through donations to the center from business interests connected to Mr. Abramoff, another possible violation of House rules.

In financial disclosure forms, Mr. Ney said the center paid for his trip to Scotland, a statement that he said was based on assurances from Mr. Abramoff. But in response to news reports, the center said last month that it had nothing to do with Mr. Ney's trip, suggesting that Mr. Abramoff paid the bills himself.

Andrew Blum, a spokesman for the law firm that is representing Mr. Abramoff, would not answer detailed questions about the investigations. But he said in a statement that Mr. Abramoff was "being singled out by the media for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper."

Asked about the golf trips, Mr. Blum replied, "The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known." A lawyer for Mr. Scanlon did not return phone calls.

While Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon are not answering questions posed by Congressional investigators and news organizations, a flood of e-mail traffic between the two men is doing some of the talking for them, much to the discomfort of their lawyers.

E-mail messages subpoenaed from their files show that Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon mocked tribal leaders as "monkeys," "morons" and "troglodytes,"' and manipulated tribes into making large donations to Congressional Republicans and their political action committees, as well as to private charities that Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon controlled.

The messages document how they maneuvered secretly in 2001 to organize a campaign to pressure the Texas state government to shut down a casino owned by the Tigua tribe of western Texas, only to then turn around and present themselves as the casino's savior. Mr. Abramoff offered his services to the tribe for a suggested monthly lobbying fee of $125,000 to $175,000 a month.

There is no evidence to prove that a member of Congress promised a vote to Mr. Abramoff in exchange for gifts, although in his e-mail messages, the lobbyist wanted to leave the impression that Mr. Ney's 2002 golf trip would produce a clear benefit to the Tiguas in reopening their casino.

On March 26, 2002, Mr. Abramoff wrote to Marc Schwartz, a political consultant for the tribe based in El Paso, urging him to make $32,000 in donations to Mr. Ney's campaign and political action committees.

On June 7, he sent the e-mail message to Mr. Schwartz about the Scotland golfing trip, asking the Tiguas to pay half its cost. "I have to start planning this now to make sure they can get tee times," Mr. Abramoff wrote.

After Mr. Ney's trip, Mr. Abramoff sent an e-mail message to Mr. Schwartz on Aug. 10, describing a planned meeting between Mr. Ney and tribal leaders. "BN had a great time and is very grateful but is not going to mention the trip to Scotland for obvious reasons," he said, using Mr. Ney's initials. "He said he'll show his thanks in other ways, which is what we want."

Brian Walsh, Mr. Ney's spokesman, said the lawmaker had never offered any favors to the Tiguas in exchange for gifts or campaign donations, despite the suggestion in the e-mail message. "Obviously it's frustrating because it's become apparent that Jack Abramoff said a lot of things to a lot of different people that were simply not true," the spokesman said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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