Sunday, April 24, 2005

Lobbyist target of several investigations


Lobbyist target of several investigations

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jack Abramoff is a man with a million connections and not many friends. The uberlobbyist's dealings are the subject of tangled criminal and congressional investigations that are attracting outsized interest, in part because of his close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

DeLay, who took a number of overseas trips allegedly arranged or financed by Abramoff, once famously described the lobbyist as "one of my closest and dearest friends."

Abramoff, who not too long ago was one of Washington's power players, now has this city exhausting its stockpile of adjectives as it hurls descriptions of unrestrained greed and cynicism in his direction — scuzzy, outrageous, pathetic, disgusting, vainglorious, to list just a few flung by members of Congress.

A shorthand summary of Abramoff's alleged dealings tends not to sound too shocking: collecting big checks from American Indian tribes for whom he performed limited work; steering clients' contributions to outside groups in which he had a personal interest; sending politicians on junkets to curry favor.

"What sets this tale apart, what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at a congressional hearing last fall at which Abramoff repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment.

To date, Abramoff and an associate are known to have collected an eye-popping $66 million or more from six tribes.

"It's so stark a case of outrageous behavior that it set everyone back on their heels," says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution political scientist. "Even the most jaded of observers of the Washington lobbying scene, I think, may have been taken aback."

But if much of Washington wants to cast Abramoff as the villain, Abramoff offers himself as the victim. Suddenly it is he who is held at a distance by longtime friends and ideological allies whose causes he has advanced since his days as chairman of the college Republicans, where his compatriots were future household names of the conservative movement such as Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed.

Abramoff, 46, was forced out of his lobbying firm last year after details of his secret dealings came out. He is not talking in public anymore, but his lawyer has described him as hurt and disappointed by what some of his former friends are saying.

There has been no rush of supporters coming to Abramoff's defense. In fact, some spokespeople go off the record even to confirm their bosses once were friends.

Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, says that because of the unfolding investigations, Abramoff "is put into the impossible position of not being able to defend himself in the public arena until the proper authorities have had a chance to review all accusations.

Blum says Abramoff "hopes that those who are quick to judge him now will remember that there are two sides to every event and that the media can condemn someone before he ever has a chance to right the record."

Much of the ammunition being slung at Abramoff comes from a trove of his own e-mail released by congressional investigators. They show, for example:

•In 2002, Abramoff and an associate secretly funnel millions to consultant Reed, a former Christian Coalition leader, to help shut down a lucrative Texas casino operated by the Tigua Indians. "We should continue to pile on until the place is shuttered," Abramoff writes to Reed. Then Abramoff persuades the Tiguas to hire him and his associate, public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, to help reopen the casino. "Is life great or what!!!" he exults.

•Describing the distribution of one tribal payment, Abramoff discloses how little the Indian tribes were getting for their money: "He (Scanlon) divided the $5 million into three piles: $1 million for actual expenses and $2 million for each of us."

•Referring to their tribal clients, Abramoff writes to Scanlon that "the annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly." In other messages Abramoff refers to his Indian clients as the "stupidest idiots in the land," monkeys, troglodytes, morons and worse.

•In 2004, Abramoff recommends that the Tiguas retain him at no cost and at the same time proposes that the Eshkol Academy, a Jewish boys school that Abramoff founded just outside Washington, buy term life insurance policies on tribal elders and receive the benefits upon their death, with the money then channeled back to Abramoff. "In effect, Mr. Abramoff asked to be paid by putting prices on the lives of tribal elders," said retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, then chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

While this was unfolding behind the scenes, Abramoff was being publicly held out as a Washington rainmaker of the first order who also managed to run an upscale restaurant, help his wife raise five children and stay true to his Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

"I'm the only lobbyist who took a 90% pay cut to join the lobbying field," he told The Hill newspaper in a gushy 2003 profile.

Blum, his spokesman, said Friday the e-mails that have since surfaced had "regrettable language not against all Native Americans as some are misleadingly saying, but against the opponents to Mr. Abramoff's clients. People often use colorful language in talking about their adversaries."

Abramoff's financial dealings related to DeLay are more convoluted, and Democrats in Congress are clamoring for an investigation into the financing of several of the majority leader's trips, which often involved rounds of golf. DeLay, for his part, has adamantly denied wrongdoing, and says no one should be trading on his name to get clients or make money.

Abramoff's career as a GOP activist has had multiple incarnations that over the years have placed him at the center of causes dear to conservatives and raised questions about financial dealings.

As head of the college Republicans, he helped coordinate a "national student liberation day" to celebrate the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Although it was portrayed as a nonpartisan event, Abramoff wrote to campus Republicans: "I don't need to tell you how important this project is to our efforts as CR's (College Republicans)."

Later he worked for the conservative advocacy group Citizens for America until he was fired amid questions about mismanaged funds.

Then he became chairman of the conservative International Freedom Foundation, later revealed to be financed by the white South African government, according to the South African truth commission.

In 1986, Abramoff headed to Hollywood, where he produced "Red Scorpion," an anti-communist movie that allegedly got money from the South African military. It was the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 that brought Abramoff back to Washington, where lobbying firms were looking to strengthen their GOP connections.

Abramoff's Republican credentials and long ties to Reed and Norquist, head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, made him a natural; now, all three are under the microscope of congressional investigators.

Marshall Wittman, a one-time conservative activist who now works for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, sees Abramoff's rise and fall as emblematic of what he believes has happened to the conservative movement overall.

"Many other Reagan conservatives came to Washington with the stars of the revolution in their eyes and they ended up with very fat wallets in their back pockets," he said. "They came to do good and they ended up doing very, very well."

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a congressional watchdog organization, said of Abramoff: "He's a case study for what needs to be done to change the rules."