Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Photos of Bush With Abramoff Are Withheld
Photos of Bush With Abramoff Are Withheld
White House Calls Pictures Irrelevant to Ethics Inquiry

By Jim VandeHei and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers

Several White House officials have been briefed about pictures of President Bush and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff taken since 2001 but will not release them on grounds that they are not relevant to the ongoing money-for-favors investigation, aides said yesterday.

"Trying to say there's more to it than the president taking a picture in a photo line is just absurd," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. Bush, he said, does not recall meeting Abramoff and did not do any favors for the disgraced lobbyist.

Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty in the growing bribery and corruption scandal, was with Bush about a dozen times when pictures were taken by the official White House photographer or other participants over the past five years, according to a source familiar with Abramoff's legal situation. Abramoff, this source said, displayed at least five of them on his office desk and has told people the president talked about his children's names as well as personal details about their schooling during one encounter.

The source said Abramoff has more than half a dozen photos with Bush, including one of the two men shaking hands, but has no intention of releasing them. The existence of the Bush-Abramoff photos was first reported by Washingtonian magazine, which reviewed five photos but was not permitted to publish them.

No evidence has emerged thus far suggesting Bush had a close relationship with Abramoff or that he or any of his top White House aides did anything to improperly assist his clients, according to people familiar with the investigation. Several lower-level administration officials, however, have been caught up in the scandal, including the top procurement official. The federal probe is expected to zero in on Abramoff's dealing with the Interior Department as it unfolds in coming months.

But public photographs could damage Bush's efforts to insulate himself from a scandal that has scorched numerous other Republicans. A vivid image of Bush shaking hands and smiling with Abramoff would provide fuel for news coverage and commentary, even if such "grip-and-grin" shots are commonplace for most politicians.

Jennifer Palmieri, a former Clinton communications aide, said, "If TV is showing a picture of George Bush and Jack Abramoff, it immediately brings the poster boy for abuse into the Oval Office."

The photos "change the dynamic to the extent that the White House lets it change the dynamics," said Mark Corallo, a veteran GOP communications official who is advising White House senior adviser Karl Rove in the CIA leak case. To minimize possible damage, Corallo said, the White House should release all of the photos immediately, explain how the photos are part of the normal meet-and-greet with supporters and show how Bush was a victim of Abramoff's schemes.

Mary Matalin, an informal White House adviser, said the photos should not be released and that, if they are, voters are savvy enough to realize the images are not evidence of a Bush role in the scandal. A top White House aide said it would set a terrible precedent if the president were to release photos from private events.

But Democrats said that precedent is established. In 1997, congressional and public pressure forced the Clinton White House to release videotapes of Bill Clinton hosting meet-and-greet coffees with big contributors.

Abramoff was no stranger to the Bush White House. He had served as one of Bush's top fundraisers and assisted the Interior Department during the president's transition to power in 2000.

The source familiar with Abramoff's situation said the lobbyist has not provided investigators any evidence the president was aware of any issues or interested in helping him. The source said most of the assistance to Abramoff came from Interior officials and elsewhere.

Abramoff's lobbying team did discuss contacting an official in the White House office of intergovernmental affairs in 2002 when trying to get Congress to approve funds for a tribal school, e-mails obtained by The Washington Post show. But it is not clear if the official was helpful.

Former chief procurement officer David H. Safavian was charged in September with lying to federal officials about his dealings with the lobbyist in connection with Abramoff's efforts to gain access to property administered by the General Services Administration. A second high-ranking administration official, former deputy Interior secretary J. Steven Griles, has also come under scrutiny in the probe. Griles, who was offered a job by Abramoff, has said he did not try to intercede on behalf of Abramoff's clients, but e-mails released by a Senate committee show numerous contacts between Griles and Abramoff or his associates.

In May 2001, several of Abramoff's tribal clients joined state legislators at a White House event arranged by Grover Norquist, an anti-tax lobbyist and friend of Abramoff. In an interview, Norquist said he does not recall Abramoff being at the White House session.

Several former Abramoff associates said the lobbyist boasted and apparently overstated his access to powerful politicians, including Bush. When Susan Ralston, Abramoff's former secretary, was hired by Rove, the lobbyist told associates he got her the job. Other officials said it was Ralph Reed, a former lobbyist who is running for governor in Georgia and has been tainted by the scandal, who helped her make the move.