The New York Times
Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washingtonby Peter H. Stone
The Indian-casino scandal has torn the veil off the Republican Party's conservative power base, revealing parts of the Washington lobbying community and GOP establishment where greed, arrogance, and corruption seem to have run amok.
At the center of this drama is the larger-than-life super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, onetime B-movie producer, with deep ties to/p>… See more details below
The Indian-casino scandal has torn the veil off the Republican Party's conservative power base, revealing parts of the Washington lobbying community and GOP establishment where greed, arrogance, and corruption seem to have run amok.
At the center of this drama is the larger-than-life super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, onetime B-movie producer, with deep ties to Republican heavyweights like the embattled Republican power broker Tom DeLay, Congressman Bob Ney, former head of the Christian Coalition Ralph Reed, influential anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and others with links to the Bush administration. Abramoff, working with public relations whiz Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aid, bilked several Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars in fees and bought influence in Congress. The federal corruption probe into Abramoff's lobbying has already produced indictments and seperate guilty pleas by Abramoff and Scanlon to charges that they conspired to bribe public officials and defrauded four Indian tribes. More charges are expected to follow in a scandal that has tarred many powerful Washington insiders, and which the New York Times has called "potentially one of the most explosive in Congressional history."
The scandal is front-page news and will continue to be as the midterm election campaigns of 2006 heat up. But Stone digs behind the headlines to capture fully a riveting tale of our time: an inside-Washington drama driven by outsized personalities and the toxic mix of money and power.
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When Jack Abramoff flew into El Paso in February 2002, he was greeted by the Tigua Indians as a potential savior. At least that’s how Carlos Hisa, a soft-spoken and boyish-looking leader of the Tigua tribe, initially regarded the well-connected Republican lobbyist from Washington.It was a difficult time for Hisa, the tribe’s lieutenant governor, and other leaders of the thirteen-hundred-member Tiguas, a Native American Indian tribe who have been in the El Paso area since 1680. The tribe’s fortunes had taken a big hit just days before Abramoff’s arrival, when a federal court ordered that a highly profitable casino that the Tiguas had been running since 1993 be shuttered.A lobbyist renowned for his prodigious fund-raising talents and high-level GOP contacts on Capitol Hill and with the Bush administration, Abramoff arrived at the Tiguas’ headquarters with a pitch to help get their casino reopened that was hard to resist.Hisa and other tribal leaders, who had worked hard for months to stave off the casino’s closing, were naturally interested, since the casino was vital to the tribe’s welfare and employment.At its peak, Speaking Rock Casino employed about eleven hundred people and generated almost $60 million a year in revenue, making it the economic mainstay for the small Tigua community. Most nights of the week and on weekends, the casino did a brisk business and was packed with patrons who poured in from nearby El Paso and other smaller towns to play the thirteen hundred slot machines or table games such as poker and blackjack.Surrounded by palm trees, the adobe-style light brown Speaking Rock was more than just a profitable venture: a large chunk of the revenues from the one-story casino was channeled into badly needed health, education, and housing programs. One ambitious project that the casino largely underwrote was a $20 million state-of-the-art wellness center: it offered everything from a diabetes prevention and treatment program to karate classes for children to a modern Olympic-size swimming pool and other recreational facilities.During the years the casino was operating, the tribe’s unemployment rate, which had previously hovered around 50 percent, was close to zero. The casino also enabled the tribe some years to pay each tribal member between $8,000 and $15,000, and made possible health insurance for many Indians who would otherwise have received little or no medical care. In short, Speaking Rock had been an economic boon to the long-struggling tribe. Most of the tribe lives in a checkerboard-style development on some four hundred acres of land just a mile or two from the Mexican border and about half an hour’s drive from downtown El Paso.After researching the lobbyist’s background, Hisa and other tribal leaders were impressed. Abramoff’s résumé read like a who’s who of the GOP power elite. At the time, he was one of the hottest lobbyists in Washington and had received extensive and favorable press coverage. An Orthodox Jew and onetime Hollywood filmmaker who turned to lobbying right after the GOP captured Congress in 1994 during the Clinton administration, Abramoff had been lionized in front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The articles had detailed his herculean fund-raising work for GOP leaders such as Tom DeLay of Texas, who had once helpfully referred to Abramoff as “one of my closest and dearest friends.”Abramoff’s roots in the conservative movement were deep. He counted among his oldest and closest friends two pillars of the network: Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. Both men were confidants of Karl Rove, the Bush administration’s political guru, and had been close allies of the lobbyist since the early 1980s, when Abramoff chaired College Republicans and they served successively as his chief lieutenants. Hisa was also impressed that Abramoff worked at Greenberg Traurig, an elite law and lobbying firm, one of whose Florida-based lawyers had been instrumental in helping the Bush campaign in 2000 win its legal battles in the Sunshine State.A stocky, well-built man in his early forties who had once been a star weight lifter at Beverly Hills High School, Abramoff initially promised that he would do pro bono work. The lobbyist had a smooth, polished style about him, and he informed the Tiguas that their casino’s closing was outrageous; in one e-mail to a tribal consultant he referred to the “gross indignity perpetuated by the Texas state authorities.” Further, Abramoff boasted that he had already found some members of Congress who would correct the injustice, citing “a couple of senators willing to ram this through.”But to achieve that goal for the tribe, Abramoff urged the tribe to hire Michael Scanlon, former spokesman for DeLay turned public relations and grassroots consultant, whom he had introduced to the tribal council at a meeting on February 12. The lobbyist and his PR associate had flown into El Paso on a privately chartered Gulfstream II jet. Abramoff and Scanlon came to the meeting with the Tiguas sharply dressed: both wore dark pin-striped suits. A lanky, athletic man of about thirty with a reputation as a glib and fast-talking salesman, Scanlon received rave reviews from Abramoff: Scanlon was touted by the lobbyist as a “go-to guy” and the “preeminent expert in grassroots politics,” whose expertise would quickly ratchet up local pressures on Congress to ensure that Speaking Rock would reopen. Moreover, Abramoff assured the council that they would be “hiring Scanlon independently.” Unlike Abramoff’s pledge to work for free, Scanlon readily acknowledged that his work would be expensive, and a few days later he followed up with a written plan that he felicitously dubbed “Operation Open Doors.”The Scanlon plan certainly sounded grandiose. “Operation Open Doors is a massive undertaking fueled by a nationwide political operation,” the several-page plan stated. “This political operation will result in a majority of both federal chambers either becoming close friends of the tribe, or fearing the tribe in a very short period of time. The network we are building for you will give you the political clout you need to end around [sic] the obstacles you face in your own back yard. Simply put, you need 218 friends in the U.S. House and 51 Senators on your side very quickly, and we will do that through both love and fear.” To achieve these objectives, Scanlon proposed several steps, including building a “grassroots data base” and a related “research data base” that his consulting company would assemble by compiling a master list of the tribe’s vendors, employees, and other economic and political allies. “To put things in military terms,” the Scanlon memo stated, “the grassroots data base is your weapon; and the research data base is your ammunition.”On February 22, when Hisa and the tribal council met to seal the deal with Abramoff, he was alone. As before, Abramoff stressed that there was a need for absolute secrecy about the project, which the lobbyist said was preferred by “friendly legislators” in Washington. “I thought Abramoff was for real,” Hisa told me one day in the summer of 2005 as we sat in his modest office just across the street from where the Speaking Rock still stands. “I looked him up on the Internet. I had no reason to doubt him.” It all sounded very good to Hisa and his colleagues on the Tigua council. So the tribe agreed to a $4.2 million contract with a Scanlon-run consulting company to launch Operation Open Doors.At the outset, Hisa and the other tribal leaders had reason to be optimistic about their casino reopening. Marc Schwartz, an El Paso consultant for the tribe who was the main liaison with Abramoff, told me that even before the contract was signed, the lobbyist at the February 22 meeting had handed him a list of $300,000 in suggested donations that he wanted made quickly to dozens of members of Congress and campaign committees. Abramoff requested that the checks, more than 90 percent of which were for Republicans, be sent to him for distribution, which the tribe agreed to do. Schwartz recalled that he was a bit perplexed about Abramoff’s repeated emphasis on secrecy but, like Hisa and the tribal leaders, thought that the lobbyist was a good find.On March 20, Abramoff already had some good news: he informed the tribe’s leaders that he had gotten a commitment from a little-known but influential House Republican, Bob Ney of Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, to attach a measure in conference to an election reform bill that would permit the tribe’s casino to reopen. Privately, after Abramoff learned of Ney’s promise at a meeting with the congressman, he couldn’t contain himself. In a quick e-mail to Scanlon, he wrote, “We’re fuck’n … gold. Ney is going to do Tigua.”Just six days after Ney’s promise, Abramoff instructed the tribe to donate some $32,000 to Ney’s campaign committee and newly created political action committee, which the Tiguas quickly did. For good measure, Abramoff asked the Tiguas to chip in $50,000 to help underwrite a golf junket to Scotland for Ney and two of his staff that August. In an e-mail to Schwartz, Abramoff alluded to Ney as “our friend” and strongly suggested that funding the trip would make the congressman happy. Despite the lobbyist’s pressure, the tribe’s council balked at the cost and Abramoff didn’t hide his displeasure.Not to be denied, Abramoff continued to press the tribe in e-mails and phone calls for help. Hisa recalled that Abramoff kept stressing how important the trip would be by pointing out that “he was going to take key individuals who we needed for our efforts.” At one point, according to a Tigua consultant, Abramoff even went so far as to tell him that then House majority whip Tom DeLay, who had taken a similar golf trip to Scotland with Abramoff in 2000, endorsed the idea of Ney’s taking a junket too.Eventually, the Tiguas informed Abramoff that while they couldn’t give their own funds, they would try to locate other financing. Hisa and Schwartz agreed to ask another small Texas tribe, the Alabama-Coushattas, which also might have benefited from the proposed legislation because they too had a casino project that was in jeopardy. Hisa met with a top official of the other tribe and explained that “we need $50,000 for a trip to Scotland for key individuals including Bob Ney.” Shortly thereafter, the Alabama-Coushattas were instructed to send $50,000 to an obscure Abramoff-run charity in Washington called the Capital Athletic Foundation. Abramoff had designated the foundation to sponsor and pay for the trip, which Abramoff billed as “an educational mission,” to avoid public disclosure about its actual funding sources.The summer getaway turned into an extravagant excursion that featured golf at Scotland’s storied St. Andrews links, where Abramoff had hosted a similar junket for DeLay in 2000 and liked to entertain his powerful friends. The five-day trip, which cost about $130,000, wound up including a few people Abramoff was seeking political help from, as well as others with whom he already had close links. Besides Abramoff and Ney, there was Ralph Reed; Ney’s former chief of staff Neil Volz, who in early 2002 had become a lobbying associate of Abramoff; and David Safavian, an old friend of Abramoff’s in the Bush administration whom he had recently lobbied for other favors in Washington. The entourage flew to St. Andrews on a rented Gulfstream II jet and in Scotland enjoyed spacious $400-a-night rooms at the Old Course Hotel and some elegant dining in Edinburgh. There was also a two-day stopover at the expensive Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel in London on the way home. On House travel disclosure forms, Ney described the purpose of the junket as a meeting with Scottish parliamentarians, although Parliament was in recess during his visit. But Mark Tuohey, an attorney for Ney, told reporters shortly after Volz’s plea deal that the congressman had been at a luncheon where there was a “discussion of issues” with a few Scottish parliamentarians. Tuohey declined to name the Scottish officials.Just days after the junket in mid-August, Hisa, Schwartz, and one other Tigua representative came to Washington, where they met with Ney and Abramoff in the congressman’s office for almost ninety minutes and received reassurances of his support for their cause. Hisa and Schwartz both recalled that Ney was in a spirited mood, praising the lobbying skills of Abramoff. “Ney thanked us for everything that the tribe had done for him,” Hisa told me; but the congressman, who looked “red as a lobster” from his golf outing, didn’t mention the trip specifically. Before the meeting, Abramoff had cautioned the tribal members that they shouldn’t bring up the topic. He stressed that Ney would show his appreciation later, a not-so-subtle reference to the proposed legislation. According to his plea agreement, Volz was instructed by his new boss to tell Ney “what Abramoff wanted him to say.”Abramoff kept trying to impress the tribe with his Washington clout, Hisa told me. “Abramoff said that President Bush had contacted him and asked him to help find individuals to place in certain offices.” Abramoff, Hisa added, also took credit for “recommending” Gale Norton to be secretary of the Interior Department, which oversees Indian issues.Unfortunately for the Tiguas, the measure that Ney had told the tribe he would push for them never materialized, despite his pledge. Subsequently, Ney claimed that Abramoff had “misled” him about the proposed provision: the congressman said he had agreed to sponsor a measure only after Abramoff had told him that Democratic senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut would also back the provision. Dodd denied he’d ever made such a commitment, but Ney cited his lack of support as the reason he backed out.But in October of 2002, even after the election reform bill had been finished by the congressional conference committee without the measure to help the tribe, Ney told Tiguas officials in a conference call that he supported their efforts, according to Hisa and Schwartz. Ney also voiced dismay that Dodd, who cochaired the conference committee with Ney, “had gone back on his word,” Schwartz told me.The dashing of the Tiguas’ expectations was just the start of the tribe’s ordeal with Abramoff. Almost two years later, the tribe and Hisa were to learn other disturbing and depressing news: Abramoff and Scanlon had deceived them about their financial ties with one another and much more. Despite the lobbyist’s pledge that he would initially work pro bono for the tribe, Abramoff had a secret deal with Scanlon to split most of the $4.2 million in fees that the PR man was receiving from the Tiguas. Abramoff and Scanlon each pocketed $1.85 million, according to their pleas.And in an even more stunning revelation, Hisa and the tribe subsequently discovered that Abramoff and Scanlon, before they approached the Tiguas, had actually been engaged in a lobbying drive whose aim was to shut down the very same Speaking Rock casino they were now pressing to get reopened. Abramoff and Scanlon’s covert work to shut the Speaking Rock was financed by another casino-owning tribe: the Louisiana Coushattas. Although the Tiguas were located almost eight hundred miles away, Abramoff had convinced the Louisiana Coushattas that both the Tiguas and the Alabama-Coushattas who were nearer the Louisiana border posed serious threats to their revenues. The lobbyist then enlisted Ralph Reed and his Atlanta consulting firm, Century Strategies, to generate conservative support from his old friends on the religious right for a lawsuit that had been filed by then Texas attorney general John Cornyn to shut down the Tiguas’ casino on the grounds that it was in violation of state law. Reed worked in tandem with Abramoff and Scanlon, to rally Texas pastors and generate phone calls to bolster Cornyn’s lawsuit.In a January 2002 e-mail, Reed informed Abramoff that he was going to be meeting soon with one of Cornyn’s top deputies, and added that “we did get our pastors riled up last week, calling his office …” Abramoff responded quickly: “Great. Thanks Ralph. We should continue to pile on until the place is shuttered.”A few months earlier, in the fall of 2001, after the Tiguas took out large newspaper ads in Texas attacking Cornyn for using a “legal technicality” to close their casino and portraying the move as a blow to the Tiguas’ economy, Reed e-mailed Abramoff: “Wow. These guys are really playing hardball. Do you know who their consultants are?” Abramoff shot back: “Some stupid lobbyists up here who do Indian issues. We’ll find out and make sure all our friends crush them like bugs.”For Abramoff and his clients, Reed’s enormous cachet with religious groups was enhanced by a Time magazine cover in May 1995 that featured his choir-boy visage and the headline “The Right Hand of God.” But to judge by his own description of his electoral tactics during his years as executive director of the Christian Coalition, Reed was well versed in playing hardball. “I want to be invisible,” Reed once told a Virginia newspaper in explaining his approach to mobilizing Christians for electoral purposes when he was spearheading the Christian Coalition for much of the 1990s. “I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”Reed’s Texas mission was similar to projects he’d worked on with the two influence merchants in Alabama and in Louisiana. His forte in his new role as corporate consultant was mobilizing social and religious critics of gambling, many of whom he knew from his Christian Coalition work, to oppose tribal casinos and other gaming ventures that might pose economic threats to Abramoff’s Indian clients. Together, these Abramoff-backed projects earned Reed’s firm almost $6 million, but the funds were routed through a few conduits to protect Reed’s image with his fellow Christian conservatives as an ardent foe of all gambling. For many months afterward, Reed staunchly maintained that Abramoff had simply asked him to build antigambling coalitions and that—even though he knew that the lobbyist had lucrative casino clients—he had no idea where his payments were coming from.Hisa later read e-mails between Abramoff, Reed, and Scanlon that starkly revealed the lobbyist’s playing both sides, as well as his cynicism. Just days before their casino was about to close, Abramoff had written to Reed that “I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I’d love us to get our mitts on that moolah. Oh well stupid people get wiped out.” To which Reed replied, “Got it.” When the lobbyist and Scanlon were making plans for their visit to El Paso, he wrote to Scanlon, “Fire up the jet baby we’re going to El Paso!!” Scanlon simply responded, “I want all their money.” Abramoff assented, “Yawzah.”In another exchange that symbolized Abramoff’s mind-set, the lobbyist dashed off an e-mail to Scanlon in which he gloated about some bad news for the tribe that ran in the El Paso Times on page 1. The story, which ran on Feburary 19, described the heavy economic toll that the casino’s closing had on the tribe and pointed out that some four hundred and fifty casino employees were in the midst of being laid off. “Is life great or what!!!” Abramoff asked his colleague.Hisa, a short man who wears his hair in a ponytail and sports a wispy goatee, told me that he’s been haunted by the whole sordid episode. “I took a lot of the blame because I had pushed for the Washington effort,” Hisa recalled with some pain but considerable candor. “I checked out Abramoff’s credentials. Abramoff was educated in how to screw people over.”Hisa also voiced regrets about asking another tribe to make such a large donation to help Ney take his golf junket, especially since the legislation never came to pass. “I feel like I did what Abramoff did to us.” But what happened with the Washington lobbyist, he added, was “nothing new to the tribe.” In Hisa’s eyes, Abramoff’s double-dealing and duplicity were part of a long story of mistreatment of Native Americans. “It’s another chapter in an ongoing story.”That sense of history repeating itself is shared by several tribes that paid tens of millions of dollars to Abramoff and Scanlon for their lobbying, grassroots, and PR help. What happened to the Tiguas was actually just a fragment of a much wider pattern of frauds that Abramoff and Scanlon perpetrated on several Indian tribes flush with casino revenues.The tribes that hired the two lobbyists were among the wealthiest in the country due to their casinos, which in some cases brought in $300 million or more annually. During the decade that Abramoff made millions of dollars and worked hard to keep GOP coffers brimming, the Indian gaming industry was also growing at a rapid pace: by the end of 2005, Indian casinos were a $20-billion-a-year business and represented the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s gambling industry.But despite their newfound wealth, some of the tribes lacked political savvy about Washington and the ways of the lobbying world. “I feel like we were taken advantage of by these white guys again,” Audrey Falcon, a council member of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe in northern Michigan, told me one crisp fall morning in 2005 at the tribe’s Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort complex in Mount Pleasant. “It brings up all the mistakes that we’ve had in our history.”Falcon, a former nurse, and mother of two, who speaks with conviction, thinks that the tribe’s casino revenues made it a ripe target. “Abramoff and Scanlon knew that we had money and a successful gaming operation. We were targeted because of that, I sense.” The Saginaw Chippewas spent almost $14 million to hire Scanlon’s company, and Abramoff, and, like the Tiguas, had no knowledge that he had a secret kickback deal with Abramoff. “It’s really sad that this kind of thing is happening again. Even though Abramoff is gone, we’re still dealing with him and it’s hurtful.”The bitter and very costly experiences that the Tiguas, the Saginaw Chippewas, and several other tribes had with Abramoff and Scanlon helped lift the lid on a giant influence-peddling scandal. Ultimately, it was revealed that six tribes paid Abramoff and Scanlon the extraordinary sum of $82 million over three years for their lobbying and PR help.The outlines of the scandal began to emerge after The Washington Post ran a long front-page exposé on February 22, 2004, that revealed significant details about the extraordinarily high fees that the two men charged; in the story, several tribal leaders raised concerns about the lack of results and the skimpy documentation of expenditures. In the wake of the Post story, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee launched an extensive investigation into allegations by tribal leaders that they had been bilked out of millions of dollars. Almost simultaneously, a federal task force led by the Justice Department revved up a nascent criminal probe into similar allegations that the two men had hoodwinked the casino-rich tribes.The Senate hearings uncovered a mountain of evidence—including a treasure trove of e-mail traffic among Abramoff, Scanlon, and other lobbying colleagues that detailed the often bizarre and complex cons they used to manipulate tribes into paying them humongous fees. Abramoff and Scanlon seemed to have insatiable appetites for more deals and more money. On December 7, 2002, Abramoff e-mailed Scanlon: “We really need mo money … We are missing the boat. There are a ton of potential opportunities out there. There are 27 tribes which make over $100 million a year … We need to get moving on them.”That hunger for money—for both personal and political ends—explains much about the casino-lobbying heist: the Indian casinos were really giant piggybanks for the two men to enrich themselves and dozens of conservative GOP friends such as Reed and Norquist, who provided lobbying and other help in Washington and several states. Using a scheme that they dubbed “Gimme Five,” the two men had persuaded six tribes to pay an astonishing total of $66 million over a three-year period from 2001 through 2003. The huge fees, which for some tribes rivaled what Fortune 500 companies spend yearly on their lobbying efforts in Washington, were paid to two of Scanlon’s firms, which were hired at Abramoff’s behest for their specialized services. The heart of the Gimme Five scam was surprisingly simple: unbeknownst to the tribes, Abramoff had cut a kickback deal with Scanlon to split most of the revenues between them, yielding them each almost $21 million in profits.On top of the $66 million, the law and lobbying giant Greenberg Traurig, where Abramoff was a famed rainmaker, was paid $16 million over three years by the tribes. And the tribes, at Abramoff’s urging, also doled out millions more to a variety of nonprofits, charities, conservative think tanks, and mostly GOP campaign coffers; Abramoff suggested that such actions would produce political benefits.There was a good reason why Abramoff was fixated on signing up tribal casinos to build his lobbying practice. Indian casinos—which faced political battles regarding taxation, sovereignty, federal recognition, and competition—were expanding fast when Abramoff entered the lobbying business and were viewed as potential gold mines for hungry lobbyists. Historically, Indian gaming started to take off after 1988, the year that Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which opened the doors wide for new Indian casinos. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous tribes came to view casino gaming as an important avenue to promote economic growth.For Abramoff, Indian casinos represented a jackpot that he exploited in stages. Early on in Abramoff’s lobbying career in the mid-1990s, he won some big victories for his first client, the Mississippi Choctaws, but several years later he ripped them off when he had them hire Scanlon for extra help. When Abramoff and Scanlon joined forces in 2001, the financial scalpings began in earnest as the two men plotted with brazen abandon to get more business. After hearing from Scanlon that he’d just received a $3 million payment from the Louisiana Coushattas, Abramoff fired back: “You are a great partner. What I love about our partnership is that when one of us is down the other is always there. We’re going to make dollars for years to come.”Spearheaded by Senator John McCain of Arizona, a longtime passionate critic of lobbying and campaign finance abuses, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee probe turned into a massive two-year inquiry into the financial and political machinations of Abramoff and Scanlon. At his first hearing in the fall of 2004, McCain pointed out that the still unfolding scandal was “astonishing” in sheer dollar terms. “Every kind of charlatan and every type of crook” has exploited American Indians since the sale of Manhattan island; McCain added that “what sets this tale apart, what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit.” At a later hearing in mid-2005, McCain observed that Abramoff and Scanlon’s treatment of their clients constituted a “betrayal.” At least equally if not more galling to the tribes’ self-esteem were dozens of e-mails between the two men—and some of their colleagues—in which Abramoff and Scanlon referred to their tribal clients with contempt, calling them “troglodytes,” “morons,” “monkeys,” and “imbeciles.”The enormous haul of Indian casino money that Abramoff and Scanlon raked in, coupled with serious allegations of misconduct, quickly attracted a few dozen federal investigators from the FBI and other agencies. Under the direction of a multiagency task force led by the Public Integrity and Fraud units of the Justice Department, a separate criminal probe into Abramoff’s influence peddling was by mid-2004 in full swing. Ultimately, the Justice plea agreements with Scanlon and Abramoff focused on fees paid by four of the six tribes that they jointly represented. Those four tribes—the Tiguas, the Saginaw Chippewas, the Louisiana Coushattas, and the Mississippi Choctaws—paid Scanlon’s companies a total of $53 million, of which a little less than half was kicked back to Abramoff through their Gimme Five scheme.Eventually that probe branched out into a broader public corruption investigation involving other lobbying and business projects of Abramoff, whose work encompassed both foreign and domestic clients, some of whom had unsavory and colorful histories. One of Abramoff’s more bizarre and disastrous projects involved his brief and stormy acquisition of SunCruz Casinos, a fleet of gambling boats that was under scrutiny by a separate federal grand jury in Florida. Tragically, within months of the deal’s closing in September 2000, things turned ugly. On February 6, 2001, Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, the previous owner of SunCruz, was brutally murdered in a gangland-style hit in Fort Lauderdale; no one was charged until September of 2005, when three men were arrested, two of whom had been hired as catering and surveillance consultants by Abramoff’s business associate, Adam Kidan.While the SunCruz story reeked of Miami Vice and had a tabloidlike feel to it, Abramoff’s lobbying career in Washington too had long generated gossip and plenty of publicity because of its larger-than-life dimensions and the lobbyist’s stellar conservative pedigree. Abramoff, who had long commanded fees between $500 and $750 an hour and who was known by the moniker “Casino Jack,” was a mass of paradoxes. A longtime movement conservative and Orthodox Jew, Abramoff in his e-mails and lobbying activities indulged in profanities, deceptions, and frauds. Although famed for his public fund-raising and wining and dining of members of Congress, Abramoff also was a stealthy operator who funneled millions of dollars through conduits and front groups to enrich himself and his political allies and chosen causes. Moreover, while he boasted many powerful friends in Congress and the Bush administration, Abramoff, in his drive to win business, exaggerated his influence and contacts and was a serial name-dropper. He was regarded by many friends as a generous and philanthropic soul, but he also had a distinctly greedy side.In his drive to win political friends and legislative favors, Abramoff used high-profile venues to cozy up to the powerful. Abramoff controlled four luxury sports suites at Washington’s leading football, basketball, and baseball stadiums that he rented for roughly $250,000 apiece, fees that were largely underwritten by his Indian casino and foreign clients. For extra cachet and clout, Abramoff became a restaurant entrepreneur: in February 2002 he opened Signatures, an upscale eatery located not far from Capitol Hill and the White House, which almost overnight became a popular hangout for members, staffers, and Bush administration friends, as well as a choice spot for holding GOP fund-raisers.Historically, Abramoff’s fortunes were closely linked to one of Washington’s most powerful fund-raising machines that lobbyists have dubbed “DeLay Inc.” Abramoff’s ties with DeLay were cemented by hundreds of thousands in contributions that he raised from clients for the Texan’s campaigns, political committees, and pet projects—including lavish foreign golf junkets, nonprofits, and charities. To further bolster his ties to DeLay, Abramoff hired three of his top aides as lobbying associates. Some of the aides had demonstrated their worth by giving Abramoff excellent access when they worked in DeLay’s office. Subsequently, after they became his lobbying colleagues, these ex-aides performed similar tasks for Abramoff’s clients while earning $200,000 to $300,000 a year.Yet Abramoff was too shrewd an operator to bank just on DeLay for access and influence. Over the years, Abramoff also adroitly recruited several senior aides from other such Republican members as Bob Ney, John Doolittle, and Conrad Burns, who were to prove important to his clients’ lobbying successes. His lobbying associates were mostly men in their late twenties or early thirties who were drawn to Abramoff’s flashy and high-rolling lifestyle. “They were young, most Catholic and aggressive guys who came from more modest backgrounds and wanted to overachieve,” recalled one such former Abramoff associate who made the jump from the Hill to lobbying. To former colleagues of the disgraced lobbyist, Abramoff provided a kind of fullservice concierge service for Capitol Hill friends and clients alike. As a former colleague of Abramoff’s put it, the lobbyist liked to have people “owe him” so that he could call in his chits at the right moment. Likewise, his former colleagues tell stories about Abramoff’s infatuation with the movie The Godfather, which became a regular source of office repartee between the lobbyist and his associates. “Jack was new to the scene,” recalled John Feehery, a former aide to DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. “He was trying to make a big splash. He was very flamboyant … Not only was it over the top, but now it seems like it was over the line.”The story of how Abramoff ingratiated and allied himself with DeLay and other leaders in the GOP Congress is emblematic of the links forged between Republicans and K Street lobbyists after the capture of the House in 1994. Several veterans of the so-called GOP revolution view Abramoff’s meteoric rise and fall—which helped precipitate DeLay’s demise as House majority leader and tarred other GOP luminaries in and out of Congress—as ultimately a cautionary tale about the betrayal of principles and political corruption.Paul Erickson, who like Reed and Norquist was a veteran of College Republicans and remained a good friend of Abramoff’s, was dismayed to learn of Abramoff’s secret deals with Scanlon. “The arrangement with Scanlon and the kickbacks were shocking to me,” Erickson, who is now a South Dakota–based businessman, told me in a phone interview in mid-2005. “It was so unnecessary … It seemed like unbridled avarice.” For many, Abramoff’s rise and fall on K Street contains broader lessons about how the GOP in recent years chose to exercise control over the levers of power in Washington. “There was an environment created in Washington that allowed someone like Abramoff to rise to the heights he achieved,” Marshall Wittmann, a onetime lobbyist for the Christian Coalition turned moderate Democrat, told me one afternoon in Washington. “The Republican Congress has become a bordello for big money. Abramoff is the one who got caught because he went too far.”While Democrats too exploited fund-raising and the lobbying community to their advantage when they were in power, Wittmann is not alone in his view that a period of excess followed the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. And a number of observers point to the DeLay-and-Norquist-inspired K Street Project—with its focus on prodding companies, trade groups, and lobbying firms to hire more GOP lobbying muscle and raise more bucks—as exhibit number one to explain the changed environment. “There was always a close relationship between K Street and the Hill, but it became much more pronounced and disciplined when the Republicans took over,” in Wittmann’s judgment.The Indian casino–lobbying game that Abramoff dominated for several years made him very attractive to members constantly searching for campaign cash. During most of the Clinton years, the bulk of tribal giving had gone to Democrats, and Republicans like DeLay were eager to reverse that trend. With Abramoff’s constant prodding, several tribes expanded their giving to his GOP friends in Congress. At the zenith of his Indian casino–lobbying career, six tribes with casinos that Abramoff represented donated some $3.5 million in a three-year period between 2001 and 2003, of which some two-thirds went to GOP members and campaign committees.Abramoff’s drive, ambition, and self-image went far beyond lobbying. As the scandal unfolded, it became evident that Abramoff had served as a kind of financial godfather to a conservative influence machine. The beneficiaries ranged from Reed and Norquist to much more obscure conservative groups like the National Center for Public Policy Research and the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. Abramoff’s enormous influence as a fund-raiser for GOP candidates and conservative causes made him a heroic figure to many on the right. One such friend and political comrade was Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who ran Toward Tradition, a nonprofit group designed to build ties between conservative Jews and Christians, of which Abramoff was an early supporter and board member. Not long after the scandal first broke, Lapin, who is said to have introduced Abramoff and DeLay, told me that the lobbyist was one of the “most creative, charismatic and driven people I’ve ever known.”Likewise Reed, soon after the scandal initially made headlines, told me that Abramoff was a “new and different kind of lobbyist,” who is “more identified as a strategist and builder of the Republican majority than for his lobbying practice alone.” Reed adamantly maintained for months that he had never worked for a casino, while trying to downplay his long-standing ties with Abramoff. But to Reed’s embarrassment, Senate investigators discovered e-mails that contradicted his oft-repeated denials of any financial ties to gambling and underscored Reed’s close links to Abramoff. “Hey, now that I’m done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts,” Reed wrote Abramoff in November 1998, just a year after he’d left his post at the Christian Coalition. Within months, Reed was earning money by doing work for the Mississippi Choctaws on antigambling projects in Alabama that Abramoff had arranged.Similarly, Norquist, whose public persona is often that of a rumpled conservative firebrand, vigorously defended Abramoff’s integrity. In the spring of 2004, Norquist seemed to blame much of the criticism of Abramoff on a political vendetta by McCain because he had not gotten the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. “The Senator,” Norquist charged in an interview with me in 2004, “hates Bush and hates DeLay.” But he quickly added, “Jack is an ally and friend of both.” Norquist, who worked against McCain in the 2000 primaries, asserted further that Abramoff would weather the investigation and be “fine.” He called Abramoff “hard-working, smart, and completely up-front.”Abramoff’s defenders notwithstanding, several of the scams that he used to funnel tribal monies to conservative friends and his own bank accounts and pet projects had such a zany, madcap quality that it seemed as though they could have been lifted from Mel Brooks’s The Producers. In one of the oddest twists, Abramoff persuaded a few tribal clients to donate almost $4 million—directly and indirectly—to his personal charity, the Capital Athletic Foundation. The charity touted its mission as helping poor kids in urban areas and promoting sportsmanship. But the lion’s share of the foundation’s funds went to the Eshkol Academy, a Jewish prep school that Abramoff had also founded in suburban Maryland, which two of his sons briefly attended.Millions more were routed through a self-styled “international think tank” that was located in a small yellow bungalow in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a popular seaside getaway just a few hours from downtown Washington. Dubbed the American International Center, the think tank was the handiwork of Scanlon, who had created it with Abramoff’s blessing to disguise where funds were coming from, where they were going, and what kind of work was being done for different tribal and foreign clients. A key mission of the think tank was to channel about $2.3 million of tribal funds to Ralph Reed’s consulting company to help keep his involvement with Indian casinos secret, thereby allowing him to maintain his good standing with social and religious conservatives who since his Christian Coalition days had regarded him as a staunch foe of gambling. Adding to the center’s mystique, Scanlon’s two principal deputies were boyhood friends from the beach, one of whom was a yoga instructor and the other a lifeguard.As appalling as the frauds and cons committed by Abramoff and Scanlon were, it would be naïve and unfair to let some of the tribal leaders who retained the two influence peddlers completely off the hook in terms of responsibility. “The thought of acquiring political power was a narcotic for some of these tribes,” I was told by Kevin Gover, a Native American who was director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration and then taught law at Arizona State University. “They lost their minds and got ripped off.”Looking back at their very expensive and painful encounters with Abramoff and Scanlon, some tribal leaders also see cautionary lessons. No tribe probably felt as injured as the Louisiana Coushattas, who spent more than any other—at least $32 million—to hire the two Washington hands. “Abramoff and Scanlon had a talent for exploiting weaknesses,” observed David Sickey, a very articulate man in his late twenties who was elected to the Coushatta council in mid-2003 and pushed to uncover the frauds and get rid of Abramoff and Scanlon. “It’s a sad fact that they were looking to take advantage of Indian wealth,” Sickey told me one morning in early 2006 when I visited the Coushattas’ tribal offices. “They had a talent for sniffing out weak links. At the end of the day we learned some important and painful lessons.”That feeling was certainly shared by several other tribes, such as the Tiguas. Even after Ney failed to deliver on his promised measure to help the Tiguas reopen Speaking Rock, in 2003 Abramoff pitched more schemes to the tribe to win additional business from them. One of the most bizarre notions Abramoff suggested involved an insurance scam that the tribe quickly rejected. It’s not hard to see why: in an e-mail to Tigua consultant Marc Schwartz, Abramoff tried to persuade the tribe to enroll tribal elders seventy-five and older in a term-life insurance program and make Eshkol Academy the beneficiary. The school would then pay Abramoff’s lobbying fees, he said. Appallingly, too, the work that Scanlon, with Abramoff’s blessing, had billed the Tiguas for was outrageously priced. Hisa of the Tiguas told the Indian Affairs Committee at a hearing in the fall of 2004 that Scanlon charged his tribe close to $1.5 million for the much-ballyhooed data base to mount Operation Open Doors, only to discover later that its true value was less than $100,000. It’s not surprising that in his congressional testimony, Hisa quipped, “A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes. We had no warning.”Copyright © 2006 by Peter H. Stone All rights reserved
Meet the Author
Peter Stone, a writer for the National Journal, was one of the first reporters on this story and has been following it closely since it broke in 2004. Heist is his first book.
Peter Stone, a writer for the National Journal, was one of the first reporters on this story and has been following it closely since it broke in 2004. Heist is his first book.
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