An e-mail trail of money and influence

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

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.

"Ahhh - the glamorous world of non-profit work - about one half step above beggar!" she concluded in an Oct. 4, 2001 e-mail to Abramoff.

In subsequent communications with Federici and others, Abramoff called CREA "our access to Norton" and talked about "our guy Steve." He bragged about quashing Interior Department policies that are against his client tribes' interests, and weighed in with his thoughts on who should get key Interior jobs.

But Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, has said the panel has found no evidence that Norton was aware that Abramoff was invoking her name for gain. Griles has testified that he treated Abramoff no differently than other lobbyists.

And within the e-mail trail are hints that Abramoff didn't have quite the juice he claimed. He was taken by surprise when Norton named Aurene Martin acting head of Indian Affairs in January 2003 - just the sort of thing a well-connected lobbyist should know in advance.

And by July 2003, he appeared to be out of the loop, reduced to begging for advice.

Griles "won't discuss any of my clients with me," he complained in a July 17 e-mail to Federici. "The problem is that since he won't do so, and since you are not able to chat with him now, I am left in a real dilemma. I can't deliver anything from Interior for my clients."

* * *

Another aspect of lobby life well illustrated in the Abramoff e-mails is infrastructure maintenance. As in, how to get your clients to share the bill for those must-have trappings of success, such as stadium boxes.

In May 2001, Abramoff asked Kathryn Van Hoof, chief counsel of the Louisiana Coushattas, if the tribe wanted to join some of his other clients in his sports suites program. For $185,000, Abramoff wrote in an e-mail, tribal leaders could be official cosponsors of his existing luxury boxes for D.C.-area baseball, hockey, and football venues.

This investment would translate into approximately 400 fundraising opportunities, Abramoff promised, virtually all used by members of Congress or their organizations.

"The huge leverage in doing this is that the tribe not only gets the political credit for making available the sports suite, but gets credit with the Member for all funds raised in that evening," wrote Abramoff.

Pressed by Ms. Van Hoof for more details, Abramoff said the Coushattas would be taking the place of some withdrawing Russian clients. Personal attendance is not a requirement of the deal, said the lobbyist; the Choctaws sent a representative "very rarely", his Marianas clients "never." The tribe should instead send a couple of framed items to hang on the football stadium and MCI Center walls.

"It helps when you attend, but if you are not there, we still make a big deal about you guys being their hosts and we spend a lot of time discussing the tribe," wrote Abramoff.

In Washington, clients of lobbyists are accustomed to being directed where to send large sums of money. Lists of lawmakers and organizations deemed important for the client to support are a staple lobbyist product; a number of these lists are included in the trove of Abramoff e-mails and documents.

Thus a request for an Indian tribe to pay $185,000 to allow other people to watch a football team named "Redskins" did not apparently strike the Coushattas as out of line. The tribe cut the check for the program on May 25, 2001.

* * *

Finally, if you're going to be a player in the lobby game, you've got to accept the concept of strange bedfellows. Your ally today can easily be the group that was at your throat last week.

Thus one of Abramoff's primary weapons for protecting the gambling interests of his Indian tribes was the antigambling Christian right. For at least three projects between 1999 and 2002, Abramoff enlisted the help of Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and current candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor.

The logic went this way: Use opponents of gambling to stamp out new gambling proposals that threaten the profits of existing casinos. And Mr. Reed enthusiastically rallied antigambling troops:

"We are opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back. If victory is possible, we will achieve it," wrote Reed in a 1999 e-mail to Abramoff regarding a campaign to kill an Alabama casino proposal for the benefit of the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians.

But Reed and his campaign firm were expensive, prompting Abramoff to finally explode.

"He is a bad version of us! No more money for him!" the now-admitted felon e-mailed his partner Michael Scanlon in 2002.

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