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An e-mail trail of money and influence

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2006


Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was, in his own word, "jazzed."

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It was Sept. 25, 2001, and the night before he'd attended a small Georgetown dinner given by a Republican environmental group. He'd hobnobbed there with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Deputy Secretary Steven Griles - two of the most important officials in the government, as far as Mr. Abramoff's Indian tribe clients were concerned.

Now it was the day after, and time for a little relationship cultivation.

"The event last night was outstanding!!" he wrote in an 11:54 a.m. e-mail to Italia Federici, president of the group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. "Bravo! ... I have a fantastic box at the Redskins stadium. How about you come this Sunday and see it (invite Steve to come with his family also), and we'll all discuss my doing a fund raiser there for you guys?

"Let me know as soon as you can ... I think [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and his guys will also be there. 1PM game," Abramoff concluded.

The case of Jack Abramoff, disgraced super-lobbyist, provides an unprecedented look at the way Washington really works.

That doesn't mean everyone on K Street is corrupt, as Abramoff and his former partner, public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, now have admitted they were. The pair's "Gimme Five" scheme, in which Abramoff steered business to Mr. Scanlon in return for a 50 percent kickback, was unique - and felonious.

But US investigations of Abramoff and Scanlon produced pointillistic detail about their daily political activities, much of which were perfectly legal. Hundreds of pages of e-mails and congressional testimony released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs trace the pair as they scrabble for access, scratch backs, beg for money, and dole out contributions in return.

It's D.C. as it is, a Vanity Fair of skyboxes, name-dropping, and $130 Sushi Taro lunches. Few lobbyists have their own restaurant, as Abramoff did. But many might relate to that twinge of panic when it's the end of the month, and the checks don't seem to be rolling in.

"Our pool is getting shallow - we need to reload my man!" Scanlon e-mailed Abramoff in September 2002.

* * *

Let's start with what might be called The Great Circle of Influence. It's a basic procedure whereby lobbyists obtain access for their clients, and it's well illustrated by the connections that occurred at the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) dinner on Sept. 24, 2001.

There's no evidence that either the CREA group or any of its officials have done anything illegal in conjunction with Abramoff. Ms. Federici strongly defended her innocence in an appearance before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last November, saying she had been subject to Abramoff's manipulations.

But in 2001, with the Bush administration still new, Federici held a card of value: Top GOP officials would show up if she asked. Secretary Norton had helped found the group, and Mr. Griles was a friend. So both agreed to attend when Federici invited them to a fundraising dinner.

"Just heard back from Interior and the date for the dinner is Monday, September 24th," Federici e-mailed Abramoff in late August 2001. "Steve is personally inviting everyone from Interior and talking with them about the dinner so I expect a wonderful turnout ..."

Abramoff, for his part, controlled something that the GOP environmental group needed: cash. Most of his Indian tribe clients agreed to sign on as trustees of CREA, at a cost of $50,000 each. Among the perks for trustees was an invitation to the CREA dinner. And the Interior Department is where many issues important to Indian tribes, such as land use and casino policy, are decided.

Not that the tribes paid quickly. A few days before the dinner, Federici asked Abramoff when some of that money might flow in, as she was trying to make some payments and budget for the next quarter.

"Hi Italia. Choctaw will come through with the $50K sometime next month (they are over budget for this fiscal year, which ends at the end of the month)," Abramoff replied in a Sept. 21 e-mail. "Kickapoo is going to give in two parts of $25K each, starting next month. Chitimacha has, I believe, already sent over some (was it $10K?) ...."

The dinner was a small one of 23 people, held in a private home near the Naval Observatory. Abramoff seemed happy afterward, as the invitation to his skybox shows. Federici replied a few days later - and asked again if the lobbyists could hurry along promised checks.