Sunday, October 01, 2006

Report Says Rove Aide Accepted Abramoff Gifts
Report Says Rove Aide Accepted Abramoff Gifts
By James V. Grimaldi and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers

A top aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove passed along inside White House information to superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at a time when she was also accepting his tickets to nine sports and entertainment events, according to e-mails released yesterday in a bipartisan congressional report.

The e-mails, released by the House Government Reform Committee, show that Susan Ralston also on occasion discussed possible business ventures with Abramoff. Ralston had worked for Abramoff before joining Rove in the White House in 2001.

White House contacts with Abramoff have been the focus of heated interest in Washington since he pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges earlier this year. Although the committee report documents that Abramoff's lobbying team billed their clients for more than 400 contacts with White House officials over three years, it remains unclear what results Abramoff obtained.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seized on the report yesterday: "A disgraced lobbyist traded perks and campaign contributions for special access to the Bush White House."

But White House press secretary Tony Snow disagreed.

"Jack Abramoff was an exuberant practitioner of sleaze to the point that it's very difficult within the report itself to figure out how many actual contacts there are," Snow said.

The report identified 66 Abramoff contacts with the White House, more than half of them with Ralston. Members of Abramoff's lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig LLP contacted Ralston 69 times.

Ralston has declined to comment on the report.

The report indicates that Abramoff was largely ineffective at placing people in key positions in the administration, apparently failing to win any of the appointments he sought.

When Ralston came through for Abramoff, it often was in relatively minor ways. On Oct. 21, 2001, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff that Rove had read an Abramoff memo about a political endorsement in an obscure race in the Mariana Islands. Ralston reported back to Abramoff that Rove had agreed, writing in an e-mail the next day: "You win :)"

Ralston also informed the Abramoff team about possible political appointees. But there is no evidence that Rove knew or approved of Ralston's actions.

She told Abramoff and his associates that she passed messages and documents to Rove, but the committee report did not confirm that she had done so. On Feb. 21, 2001, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff lobbyist Todd A. Boulanger: "Thanks for breakfast. I showed KR the binder. . . . He gave the binder to Mehlman to read cover to cover and to be prepared." Ken Mehlman was then the White House political director.

Mehlman, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said yesterday that he talked on occasion with members of the Abramoff team but does not specifically recall the issues raised. "When they come to me with ideas and issues, I would let relevant policymakers know," he said. "The job of the political director is to meet with interested parties."

Mehlman said everything he engaged in "was aboveboard, all stuff that was appropriate."

Ralston also helped Rove get tickets from Abramoff for a game in the NCAA basketball tournament, but Ralston told Abramoff that he "has to pay." The White House confirmed yesterday that Rove paid for the tickets.

But Ralston apparently did not pay for tickets she accepted to MCI Center events -- including two concerts featuring rocker Bruce Springsteen and singer Andrea Bocelli, three Capitals hockey games and a Wizards basketball game -- and seats at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards.

On seven occasions, Ralston requested tickets, the report said. "You got 'em," Abramoff e-mailed Ralston when she asked in December 2001 for four prime Wizards tickets valued at $1,300, the report said.

In 2004, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff that she was "willing to pay" for Capitals tickets, but he replied, "No problem, and you don't have to pay!" In 2003, she thanked him for his "generosity" in providing Orioles tickets.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the counsel's office is examining the report to determine whether ethics regulations were violated. Rules prohibit the acceptance of gifts worth more than $20 from anyone doing business with the government.

Ralston and Abramoff also discussed future business plans at least twice, the report said.

In February 2002, Ralston, Abramoff and Ben Waldman, an Abramoff business partner in his fraudulent purchase of a casino cruise line in Florida, exchanged e-mails about an aircraft leasing venture. In November 2002, Ralston and Abramoff exchanged e-mails about an idea to form a defense or homeland security contracting company.

Ralston expressed interest but said she thought it would take a lot of research to get the company off the ground. But she was committed to the White House, she said. "It would take a serious amount of money for me to be lured away so unless you're really serious and can make it worth my while, let's wait until 2005." Abramoff agreed, writing, "I am not in a position to offer you serious money for this right now."