Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Senators to Probe Lobbyist's Activities

The Wall Street Journal

Senators to Probe Lobbyist's Activities
Hearing Will Focus on Whether Abramoff
Tried to Sway Decision About New Casino

WASHINGTON -- A Senate investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff that has drawn attention to his ties to members of President Bush's inner circle of advisers is set to open a new line of inquiry in its hearing today.

A Senate committee will hear testimony on whether Mr. Abramoff sought to influence Interior Secretary Gale Norton by directing one of his clients to donate money to a nonprofit group Ms. Norton founded before joining the Bush administration. The panel also will look into whether Mr. Abramoff sought help for his clients from Ms. Norton's deputy at the Interior Department, Steven Griles, by offering Mr. Griles a lobbying job.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee that has conducted the yearlong inquiry into Mr. Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes, emphasized that his panel has found "no connection" between Mr. Abramoff and Ms. Norton. He said the hearing will focus on two of her associates.

The Senate panel's inquiry has focused on Mr. Abramoff's lobbying for a handful of Native American tribes. Mr. Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, earned more than $80 million over four years from the tribes.

Today's hearing is set to look at how Mr. Abramoff may have sought to influence the Interior Department -- the Cabinet agency that handles matters affecting tribal affairs, such as recognizing tribes and approving gambling agreements between states and tribes.

At the hearing, the panel is expected to release copies of emails between Mr. Abramoff and his clients and administration officials. According to people who have read them, the emails document that the lobbyist sought to have his American Indian clients make donations to Ms. Norton's former organization in an attempt to influence the Interior Department. The emails are said to show how the current head of the organization -- the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy -- relayed information about decision-making on the proposed casino between Mr. Abramoff and senior Interior Department officials. The council is a business-backed Republican group that works on conservative solutions to environmental issues. The council once launched a pricey campaign to defeat legislation offered by Mr. McCain to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The hearing comes at a time when Republicans are facing several probes. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, stepped down after being indicted in the CIA-leak investigation. Securities regulators and the Justice Department are looking into Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's sale of HCA Corp. shares days before discouraging news for the company; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R., Texas) has stepped aside as he faces money-laundering charges related to a political campaign in his home state.

Senators are expected to ask witnesses, including the current and former elected leaders of a former Abramoff client, the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, if the lobbyist tried to use financial contributions and connections at the Interior Department in an attempt to block construction of another tribe's casino that would have competed with the Coushatta gambling operations. The Coushatta tribe paid Mr. Abramoff and his partner Mr. Scanlon $30 million over three years to block the rival casino.

To help persuade the Interior Department, Mr. Abramoff asked the Coushatta tribe to make donations to the council, which Ms. Norton, a conservative activist and former attorney general of Colorado, helped organize in 1997. The Coushatta tribe gave the group a total of $150,000, according to Jimmy R. Faircloth Jr., a lawyer for the tribe.

After initially siding with Mr. Abramoff's client in 2002, the Interior Department reversed course in December 2003 to endorse the new casino. Last year, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco blocked the rival casino because she is opposed to expanding gambling in Louisiana.

When asked this week by a reporter about Ms. Norton's interaction with the Abramoff investigation, a spokesman said, "the ultimate decision here was not favorable" to Mr. Abramoff and his client.

Ms. Norton has had no role in the council since she entered Mr. Bush's cabinet. The organization is run by Italia Federici, who worked on Ms. Norton's failed 1996 campaign for a Senate seat from Colorado.

Emails that will be released at the hearing indicate that Ms. Federici helped transmit information about the department's decisions on casinos between Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Griles. When Mr. Abramoff helped stir up opposition to the new casino from conservative activists, for example, Ms. Federici warned Interior officials that influential Republicans opposed the plan.

Ms. Federici also helped arrange a meeting between the Coushatta chief and Ms. Norton after the Coushatta tribe donated $50,000 to the council. Sen. McCain asked Ms. Federici to appear at today's hearing, but she will be traveling. Ms. Federici declined to comment.

The Senate panel will also question Mr. Griles, Ms. Norton's former deputy at the Interior Department. In the past year, Mr. Griles left the administration to join the Washington firm of Lundquist, Nethercutt & Griles as a lobbyist.

According to lobbyists at Mr. Abramoff's former Washington firm, Greenberg Traurig, Mr. Abramoff offered Mr. Griles a job in late 2003 when Mr. Griles was still at the Interior Department. Lawyers for Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Griles declined to comment.

Write to Brody Mullins at brody.mullins@wsj.com1
URL for this article: