Even in Washington, the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff is breathtaking. At his peak he commanded $750-an-hour lobbying fees and maintained impeccable ties to the leaders of the conservative movement, where he was known as the "godfather" of Tom DeLay's lobbying network. DeLay himself once called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends."
Now Abramoff is perhaps the most radioactive figure in the nation's capital, thanks to the revelations last year that he and partner Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide, defrauded a half-dozen Indian tribes of $82 million in lobbying fees between 2001 and 2004. He is the subject of a wide-ranging interagency criminal probe in Washington and has been indicted in Florida on wire fraud and conspiracy charges in the purchase of SunCruz Casinos, whose previous owner was shot dead months after Abramoff acquired the company.
The Indian probe, focused on the exorbitant fees tribes were charged by Abramoff and Scanlon to lobby on Indian gaming issues, has implicated DeLay, House Administration Committee chairman Bob Ney, antitax activist Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, among others. The government's top procurement official, David Safavian, was arrested in September for obstructing the Justice Department's investigation into Abramoff. Bush's nominee for Deputy Attorney General, Tyco executive Timothy Flanigan, withdrew his nomination after disclosing that Abramoff had lobbied on Tyco's behalf.
The Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by John McCain, has prompted a flurry of headlines about Abramoff since its investigation began in September 2004. It has opened a window into Abramoff and Scanlon's lurid world of bogus Christian front groups, self-enriching charitable organizations, expletive-filled e-mails and lavish Congressional junkets, all seemingly driven by Gordon Gekko's famous mantra from the movie Wall Street: "Greed is good." The investigation has provided a dizzying insight into how Washington works--or doesn't. Abramoff, as the chairman of the Coushatta tribe of Lousiana testified Wednesday, "is the golden-boy-gone-bad of the American political system." (For the full backstory, see Michael Crowley's "A Lobbyist in Full.")
Wednesday marked the last of four scheduled committee hearings, and the first time a high-ranking Bush Administration official, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles, has been caught in the committee's crosshairs--a precursor, perhaps, of things to come. A GOP source involved in the federal investigation called his testimony "a big deal, a really big deal."
According to earlier reporting by the Washington Post and testimony Wednesday by Michael Rossetti, former counsel to Interior Secretary Gail Norton, Abramoff repeatedly lobbied Griles in 2002 and 2003 to deny land rights to the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, whose plan to build a casino in Louisiana threatened the livelihood of the neighboring Coushatta tribe, which Abramoff eventually milked for $36 million in lobbying fees.
Griles, like so many Washington insiders enmeshed in this scandal, immediately sought to distance himself from Abramoff. "My relationship with Mr. Abramoff was the same as with other lobbyists, nothing more and nothing less," he testified Wednesday.
Rossetti flatly disagreed. "I am aware that Mr. Griles in late 2003 became very interested in the decision-making process and the Secretary's meetings with respect to the Jena's in Louisiana," he testified. A series of e-mails released by the committee back Rosetti up. "We have e-mails and e-mails and e-mails where Abramoff says he is meeting with you," the committee's ranking Democrat, Byron Dorgan, told Griles. At one point Griles allegedly accepted a thick binder of anti-Jena literature from Abramoff. Not only did Abramoff meet with Griles at Interior; he also offered him a job, possibly in violation of federal conflict-of-interest statutes.
"This cannot be shared with anyone not on this distribution list," Abramoff wrote in an email to colleagues with the subject head "Griles." I met with him tonight. He is ready to leave Interior and will most likely be coming to join us." Griles, a former lobbyist who spent half his time at Interior under internal investigation for steering favors to former clients in the energy sector, ended up becoming a partner in a different lobbying firm, a prime example of a revolving-door culture between government and special interests that has spun wildly out of control. "Clearly, lobbying reform is one of those issues that will be addressed" after the investigation, said McCain.
Abramoff's conduit to Griles was Italia Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), a pro-industry front group founded by Norton and Norquist in 1998. Thus far, Norton has not been implicated in any of the wrongdoing. To woo Interior, Abramoff convinced three tribes to donate $225,000 to Federici's organization, whose tax-exempt status is now in jeopardy. (Federici dodged a subpoena Wednesday but will likely appear before the committee next week.) When Abramoff held a fundraiser for CREA at his restaurant, Signatures, Griles personally invited colleagues at Interior. The circumstances of that dinner will be one of the many questions Federici, publicly, and Abramoff, privately, will soon be forced to explain.
"All we did is follow the money," McCain said after the hearing. His investigation is a testament to how much Congress can accomplish when it simply does its job.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, based in Washington, DC, and a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation writing fellow.
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