WASHINGTON - The head of a Republican environmental organization told the
Senate Indian Affairs Committee that she was only helping her friend,
indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, when she allegedly used her connections
with a high-level official at the Interior Department to promote the
interests of his Indian tribal clients and their casinos.
Italia Federici, president of the nonprofit Council of Republicans for
Environmental Advocacy, denied that her organization received $400,000 in
contributions from Abramoff's tribal clients in exchange for access to
The donations from the tribes were simply acts of "generosity," Federici
said. The parties and meetings she arranged for Abramoff to meet top
government officials and the phone calls she made at his request to press
his concerns with them were done purely out of friendship, Federici told an
incredulous Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the
committee chairman and vice chairman, respectively.
Federici was the sole witness Nov. 17 at what was slated to be the fifth
and final hearing of the ever-widening investigation into allegations that
Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, defrauded six tribes of more
than $80 million over a three-year period. Earlier testimony said the two
skimmed off two-thirds of the funds for their own use.
So much unexplored information concerning influence peddling and corruption
has emerged with leads to several other people whose names have come up
repeatedly during the investigation, Dorgan said. He suggested, and McCain
agreed, that the investigation should continue, beginning with a focus on
the Sandia Pueblo of New Mexico, a small tribe that was allegedly defrauded
of $2.7 million.
Of particular concern, Dorgan said, was the misuse of nonprofit
organizations to launder money that was then used for political influence
peddling and personal projects.
Among the names mentioned frequently in the hundreds of e-mails released
were Republican and Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and
conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, founder of the political
action committee Americans for Tax Reform.
According to the evidence, Reed received hundreds of thousands of dollars
from one of Abramoff's tribal clients to organize "grass-roots" opposition
to a proposed casino by a rival tribe. The payments were funneled through a
nonprofit organization in order to obscure the fact that Reed, who is
publicly against gambling, was taking casino money.
"We've uncovered almost unbelievable things here. We've uncovered
activities that are pretty disgusting, some perhaps criminal, and many
unethical; and I think from these hearings will come a series of ideas for
change and reform," Dorgan said.
The Indian Affairs Committee is preparing to turn over all the evidence it
has gathered during its investigation to the Senate Finance Committee at
Federici had dodged an earlier hearing but appeared Nov. 17 after McCain
issued a subpoena.
The 36-year-old Washington insider's demeanor during the hearing shifted
from combative to attempts at demure protestations of naivete and
innocence. She frequently interrupted McCain and Dorgan, talked over their
comments, and responded with answers that had nothing to do with the
An exasperated McCain finally threatened to hold her in contempt.
The e-mails showed Abramoff and Federici in a constant interplay in which
he asked her, among other things, to intervene with former Interior Deputy
Secretary J. Steven Griles regarding issues favorable to his tribal
Griles, who testified in early November, was the subject of a separate
investigation by Interior's inspector general that was completed last year.
The probe concerned ethics violations surrounding conflict-of-interest
issues in which department contracts worth millions of dollars were awarded
without bids to a company Griles worked for as a lobbyist before his
appointment to Interior in 2001 by the Bush administration.
Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, now the acting head of the
BIA, was also queried during that investigation. Although the investigation
did not result in charges of ethics violations, "the dismal state of the
ethics program at the Department combined with the tremendous potential for
conflicts of interest that accompanied many of the DOI political appointees
- but particularly Deputy Secretary Griles - merged into the making of a
self-fulfilling prophesy," according to the report issued by the inspector
general. Griles left Interior in January 2005 and returned to lobbying.
Federici said she and Griles had an 11-year friendship. Several e-mails
involving Griles concerned the Jena Band of Choctaw, a rival to Abramoff's
client, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which paid him $37 million in
"It seems the Jena are on the march again. If you can, can you make sure
Steve squelches this again? Thanks!!" Abramoff wrote to Federici Dec. 2,
"Thanks for the update. I'll bring it up asap," Federici replied.
Probed about this exchange, Federici told McCain that she "had a
recollection of mentioning the Jena" to Griles, but "never went into the
substance of these issues with Mr. Griles."
"That's a remarkable statement," a disbelieving McCain told Federici.
The e-mails also revealed connections between Abramoff's clients and
Federici's requests for money.
"Hi, Jack. I hate to bother you with this right now, but I was hoping to
ask about a possible contribution for CREA," Federici wrote to Abramoff on
Jan. 9, 2003.
"Absolutely. We'll get [t]his moving asap. The Coushattas are coming to DC
next Thursday so I'll hit them immediately," Abramoff responded.
Coushatta Chairman Kevin Sickey, commenting at the previous hearing, said
Abramoff and Scanlon's corruption harmed not only the tribe but all of
"Jack Abramoff is not a product of Indian country. On the contrary, he is
the golden-boy-gone-bad of the American political system. Our tribe and
others were victimized when we attempted to fit into the American political
system and we were led to believe that Mr. Abramoff was the gatekeeper,"
The committee will continue its investigations in January.