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Abramoff sought White House clout in ‘sordid subculture’

WASHINGTON – A Government Reform Committee report of Sept. 29 reviewed the White House lobbying efforts of Jack Abramoff at his old firm and came away with “a detailed glimpse into a sordid subculture of fraud and attempted influence peddling,” in the words of a news release issued at the same time.

Committee findings were less clear on the critical issue of whether the prison-bound former lobbyist’s criminal conduct actually influenced executive branch officials, up to and including presidential advisor Karl Rove. The investigation was inherently one-sided, drawing as it did on the documentary trail Abramoff left at the Greenberg Traurig lobbying shop over the course of three years, beginning in 2001. Many of the events described in the documents are uncorroborated, and many billing records are vague as to the activities billed for and the people contacted.

Most of Abramoff’s lobbying targets in the White House were unresponsive to his e-mails, leading Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee chairman, to observe: “In an environment that lives and breathes on e-mail exchanges, that silence speaks volumes about how seriously most people in the White House took Jack Abramoff’s schemes.”

But other near-silences speak loudly too. Of 69 subpoenaed e-mails between Abramoff or his associates and White House officials, many “were sent to non-governmental e-mail accounts. According to the e-mails, the Abramoff team and White House officials used these non-governmental accounts, including accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee and Georgewbush.com, to discuss official business, including [personnel] appointments and [federal] agency actions.”

Elsewhere the e-mail trail suggests that White House officials warned Abramoff and company, who were weighing in against the Interior Department’s potential approval of a casino for the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, “not to put this stuff in writing in their e-mail system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff acknowledged a blunder: “Dammit. It was sent to Susan [Ralston, a Rove assistant] on her rnc [Republican National Committee] pager and was not supposed to go into the WH [White House] system.”

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The committee report reads the warning as an attempt to put distance between Abramoff’s solicitations and the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the executive branch’s liaison with tribes. But any caution against translating Abramoffian requests into writing raises the question of where, in all that voluminous silence identified by the Government Reform Committee, they may have gone and what they may have been.

E-mails were Abramoff and company’s least-used approach in lobbying the White House. Of 485 instances, 345 were in person and 71 by telephone, on top of the 69 e-mail contacts.

His point of access in the White House seems to have been Susan Ralston, his one-time executive assistant who went to work for Rove in a similar capacity. The committee report cites indications in the Greenberg Traurig documents that Ralston received regular tickets from Abramoff to events in Washington, possibly without paying for them. The record also shows that she took Abramoff’s requests and suggestions on policy and personnel to Rove and other entities. Ralston resigned shortly after the release of the report.

While at Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff seems to have made every effort to spend heavily on executive branch officials, either through event tickets or meals at his Signatures restaurant. The committee report is inconclusive as to whether most of the officials accepted or rejected the gifts, but does cite several indications that some people sometimes turned down Abramoff’s largesse.

The records reflect Abramoff’s involvement in Indian affairs. After earning a reputation with several successes for the Mississippi Choctaw under Chief Philip Martin, he went on to lobby for and against various policies and appointees, all while running the fraud and bribery scheme that would prove his undoing. His well-paid lobbying efforts yielded a mixed record of failure and success.

While acknowledging the limitations of its documentary record as “only one side of a string of transactions in which acts of fraud and attempted bribery are disguised as legitimate,” the Government Reform Committee states that other, more thorough, federal investigations are going forward. Pursuant to guilty pleas, Abramoff and several associates are assisting those investigations. In this context, it bears noting that after a recent two-hour special on the Abramoff scandal in Congress, television journalist Bill Moyers began a discussion by confirming the word in Washington – namely, that the FBI has tripled its squads of agents investigating Abramoff-related activities on Capitol Hill.