Friday, September 29, 2006

Disgraced lobbyist had more White House ties - over 450 contacts with top Bush officials

Disgraced lobbyist had more White House ties
By Joanne Kenen and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had hundreds more contacts with top White House officials than those Bush administration officials had previously acknowledged, according to a congressional report to be released on Friday.

The report by the House Government Reform Committee, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said the panel found about 485 contacts between Abramoff and his associations and the White House, including 10 with Karl Rove, who is President George W. Bush's top political adviser.

The committee based its findings on 14,000 pages of e-mails and billing records spanning three years ending in 2003, the committee report said.

The White House challenged the credibility of the report, saying it was based on material originally generated by Abramoff. Abramoff and associates have pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and related crimes in an influence-peddling scandal that reached into the U.S. Congress.

"The billing records that are the basis for this report are widely regarded as fraudulent in how they misrepresent Abramoff's activities and level of access. There is no reason why they should suddenly be viewed as credible," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The committee findings, first reported by ABC TV, found "circumstantial" evidence that Abramoff got at least some of what he wanted for his lobbying clients.


He failed to get many of the appointments he sought, but he did get appropriations of more than $16 million for a native American Indian jail and $3 million for school construction, and a favorable ruling on at least one Indian casino project, the report noted.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement prepared for release on Friday: "It was our job to examine whether and to what extent Jack Abramoff's extravagant claims of influence actually reached their intended targets in the executive branch, and what that might mean about the adequacy of current ethics and lobby disclosure laws."

Abramoff and his lobbying team had offered dinners, drinks and concert tickets to White House officials. It was not clear whether they violated lobbying laws or a ban on gifts.

According to the billing records and e-mails, Abramoff and his team had 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004 -- 345 described as meetings or other in-person interactions, 71 described as phone conversations, and 69 e-mail exchanges.

The report found that more than half of the in-person contacts involved meals or drinks with White House officials.

One e-mail discusses how often Rove visited a downtown Washington restaurant then owned by Abramoff. "I am not kidding. Karl loves the restaurant (he's been there a lot) and we could do the back room," it said.

The report also quotes Abramoff about using Ralph Reed, former leader of the conservative Christian Coalition, to lobby Rove. Reed's recent bid to become lieutenant governor of Georgia failed, in part because of his Abramoff ties.

Abramoff and his team claimed to have lobbied the White House Office of Political Affairs in 17 instances, the report says.

In six of these instances, the documents describe a direct contact with Ken Mehlman, now chairman of the Republican Party. At the time of the contacts, he was director of the office.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)