FOUR YEARS AGO A LOBBYIST for one of the Indian tribes Jack Abramoff defrauded of almost $100 million told me that Abramoff bragged about regular meetings with President Bush’s senior adviser Karl Rove—often held outside of the White House to avoid creating a paper trail.
The White House didn’t respond to questions about Rove’s relationship with Abramoff, and once Abramoff’s criminal enterprise made the papers, President Bush claimed he did not recall meeting him. Rove said he had met Abramoff at an event years earlier and considered him an acquaintance. The White House denied Freedom of Information Act requests for photos of President Bush and Abramoff.
Abramoff is serving five years for fraudulent business practices, while awaiting sentencing for his role in the lobbying scandal that sent Republican Congressman Bob Ney to jail and has a few current and former members of the House laywered up.
Now Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) has released a report confirming what the lobbyist told me four years ago. Abramoff was indeed meeting with Rove. Rove’s “acquaintance” provided him NCAA playoff tickets and opened up a luxury suite at Washington’s MCI Center for Rove’s 2002 College Republicans reunion. (“Can’t I donate it?” Abramoff asked in an e-mail. “I was a CR, too, don’t forget!”)
Abramoff communicated with Rove, either directly or through Rove’s administrative assistant, Susan Ralston, who was Abramoff’s administrative assistant when Rove hired her. Ralston also served as Abramoff’s White House staff concierge, distributing tickets and arranging dinners at Signatures, the posh Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant Abramoff owned. The committee Waxman chairs even released six photos of Abramoff and President Bush.
Waxman’s report builds on a 2006 report released while Virginia Republican Tom Davis chaired the committee, which found 485 contacts between Abramoff and his team of lobbyists and the Bush administration. Those contacts are now corroborated by depositions of former White House staff and by White House documents. The specifics of Abramoff’s work in the White House are also far more fully explained.
Bush spokesman Tony Fratto called the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report “warmed-up leftovers,” implying that committee chair Waxman is recycling old news for political purposes. With Rove out of the White House and working for Newsweek and Fox News, and guilty pleas from fourteen public officials and lobbyists involved with Abramoff now on the books, some might find Fratto’s argument convincing.
They would be mistaken.
FOOT SOLDIERS—Waxman is cautious, carefully documenting the transgressions of Abramoff and the White House staff. But even if the investigation had discovered nothing new, it is part of a process by which Congress is reasserting its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government.
In their 2006 book, The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein describe how the relationship between the Congress and the president changed after George Bush was elected president:
“The majority saw itself more as a group of foot soldiers in the president’s army than as members of an independent branch of government. Serious congressional oversight of the executive largely disappeared, and long-standing norms of conduct in the House and Senate were shredded to fulfill the larger goal of implementing the president’s program.”
Waxman and a few other committee chairs, such as New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, who is holding hearings on torture and possible war crimes, are reasserting the constitutional authority Congress abandoned, drawing red lines that a President McCain or President Obama will recognize.
A ROGUE’S GALLERY—Yet even as the supine Democratic Congress struggles to find its legs, the Abramoff story is far from over. In early June, Justice Department lawyers filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the judge to proceed with sentencing on corruption charges to which Abramoff pleaded guilty after agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors.
At about the same time, John Albaugh, who served on the staff of Ernest Istook, a former Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, pleaded guilty to accepting meals, concert tickets, and other favors in exchange for assistance for Abramoff’s clients. Also in June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned two felony convictions of David Safavian, who as General Services chief of staff took a golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff then obstructed a federal investigation and lied to the Senate. The government has not announced if it will re-try Safavian.
Mike Scanlon, an Abramoff associate who once worked for former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is repaying $19 million to Indian tribes he defrauded, while awaiting sentencing. Tony Rudy, another former DeLay staffer who later worked for Abramoff, awaits sentencing. Mark Zachares, who as a congressional committee staffer accepted money for assisting Abramoff’s clients, has yet to be sentenced. (In 2001, Abramoff tried to get Zachares appointed to a State Department post that would have put both men in position to advance the interest of Abramoff’s clients in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.)
Not “warmed-over” news, but bad news. And there is more to come. Roll Call reports that Albaugh’s guilty plea suggests the Abramoff investigation is expanding, not winding down. That’s bad news for others who have not been charged, including former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham; Kevin Ring, a former staffer to Congressman John Doolittle (R-CA), who later worked for Abramoff; and DeLay himself. Doolittle’s home has been raided by the FBI, and he has announced he will not be returning to Congress. Justice Department lawyers are reportedly looking into what work Doolittle’s ex-wife and DeLay’s current wife did to earn salaries and consultant fees. Bet on more indictments.
STATE SECRETS—Waxman’s committee report does provide a detailed account of Abramoff working the White House staff, including Rove, to get rid of a State Department official.
Allen Stayman was the director the Office of Compact Negotiations at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. His boss, a Bush appointee, urged the State Department to keep him in office because he was successfully directing ongoing compact negotiations.
But Stayman had crossed Abramoff by advocating labor reforms in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory widely known as an island sweatshop, exempt from American wage-and-hour and workplace-safety protections. The government of the commonwealth and several big employers were Abramoff clients. Abramoff described Stayman in e-mails as a “Clintonista.”
With Bush in the White House, Abramoff saw the opportunity to get Stayman out of the way, and appoint “a compassionate conservative” to fill another vacancy in the Office of Insular Affairs. (Mark Zachares was Abramoff’s failed candidate for the OIA executive job.) In a White House decision that “ultimately involved Rove and even reached top National Security staff,” Stayman was fired.
Compelling the White House Office of Personnel Policy to fire a State Department bureaucrat was the sort of thing Abramoff could pull off when he was at the top of his game. Before he was damaged goods, he was a member of the Bush transition team. He had raised more than $300,000 for Bush’s 2000 campaign, and e-mails establish that Abramoff was talking to Rove months before the election. Abramoff had established close ties to the House leadership, in particular Tom DeLay. Bush’s ascent to the White House made Abramoff one of Washington’s most sought-after lobbyists.
DIRTY MONEY MACHINE—It would be a mistake to consider Jack Abramoff an exceptional, if unprincipled, freelancer. He was part of something much larger: the “K Street Project,” which Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay considered a critical piece of their campaign to make the Republican Party “a permanent majority.”
Norquist would vet prospective lobbyists, ensure their Republican bona fides, and provide a seal of approval to present to their employers. The lobbyists understood that they were to max out on contributions to Republican candidates and encourage their clients to do the same. DeLay worked to ensure that contributors came through. The K Street Project, named after the Washington street that is home to many big lobbying firms, was a pay-to-play scheme that generated millions of dollars for Republican candidates.
On the Wednesday after George W. Bush was elected to his second term in 2004, I sat in the offices of one of Abramoff’s former clients, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. In the council files I had found letters from Abramoff, directing $300,000 of the tribe’s money to political candidates—almost exclusively Republican. There was also a copy of a $25,000 check the tribe had written to Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, for the privilege of attending a May 2001 Washington meeting with George W. Bush.
At the time, an ATR spokesman denied that the organization had ever solicited contributions from Indian tribes. Yet last week, in files compiled by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, I found a July 2, 2002 e-mail from Norquist to Abramoff:
Can the tribes contribute $100,000 for the effort to bring state legislators and those tribal leaders who have passed the Bush resolution to Washington. [sic]
When I know I have the funding, I will ask Karl Rove for a date with the president.
karl has already said yes in principle and knows that you organized this last year and hope to this year.
Perhaps the ATR spokesman I talked to didn’t get the memo. Not only were tribal leaders required to contribute to ATR before they could meet the Great White Father in Washington, the offer was limited to tribes that had signed an ATR resolution supporting President Bush’s tax cuts.
Norquist wasn’t alone. Also in the committee files is an e-mail Tony Rudy sent to Abramoff, specifying an “end-of-year giving list of the Choctaw’s [sic].” Rudy writes:
Here is [sic] my suggestions:
RNC – $15,000 (Let’s give the check to Ken Mehlman at White House)
NRSC — $5,000
NRCC — $10,000
Friends of [name redacted] $10,000
Gun owners of New Hampshire $10,000
Congressional Institute $10,000
Sean Spicer Charity $5,000
[Redacted] Leadership PAC $5,000
Texans for a Republican Majority $5,000
[Redacted] Leadership PAC $5,000
[Redacted] Soft Money PAC $5,000 (Give to Mehlman)
[Redacted] for Congress $1,000
Wisconsin Leadership PAC $2,000
[Redacted] For Senate $2,000
[Redacted] Leadership PAC $3,000
[Redacted] Leadership PAC $5,000
[Redacted] for Congress $2,000
Ken Mehlman was the White House political director.
After four years, a book, and four magazine articles, I was certain these guys had worn out my gag reflex. Then I found a letter and related e-mail written by Abramoff and Norquist—in the document file the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform compiled before 2006. To quote from the letter would not do it justice. I reproduce it below:
His Excellency Joseph Kabila
Democratic Republic of CongoVia Telefacsimile
Confidential and Urgent Communication
I want to take this opportunity to make an urgent request of Your Excellency to send your closest and most trusted advisor to a special meeting with the Honorable Karl Rove, the Senior Advisor to President Bush, which will take place at 6:30 PM (Washington DC time) on the evening of Tuesday, July 9 2002.
The meeting is very restricted and has been set for a long time, however, I have been able to obtain one invitation to this meeting. I am not certain I would be able to obtain a second place at this meeting, however, if convenient, perhaps you could also dispatch a second advisor as well in case I am able to do so. Mr. Nkashama, your Honorary Ambassador, during his official trip here, advises us that Mr. Diawabwama, the Vice President of your National Bank, might be an appropriate second advisor for this purpose.
This meeting will take place at the home of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, the most powerful private sector interest group in the United States. The meeting, which will include dinner, will also be attended by some of the top political and social leaders in the United States, but will be a very small group.
This meeting will be an excellent opportunity for your advisor to deliver a message to Mr. Rove, who is the top advisor to President Bush, and will possibly convey that message to the President the next morning.
Mr. Rove was the director of President Bush’s campaign in 2000 and is the highest ranking official in the White House, and the President’s closest confidant. This opportunity to meet Mr. Rove is particularly important at this time, since most of official Washington will become unavailable due to the summer recess.
I hope Your Excellency will favor this request.
With high regard and great respect, I am
There was a stipulation, which Abramoff explained in an e-mail to Norquist. It involved money:
I’m not sure we can pull it off on our end, but if we can, it will be a representative of the Congo. I have asked them for $100K for ATR. If they come, I think we will get it. If he is there, please go up to him (he’ll be an African) and welcome him. . . . If you could introduce him to Karl and make sure he gets a picture, that would be great. I am in California. Please email me tonight if you can as to whether he does come and if it goes smoothly, since I want to hit them fast on the ATR $.
When Norquist responded, he had only one question: “Which congo . . . Brazaville or kihnchasa?”
There are, after all, two Congos.