A few years ago, a prominent business lobbyist recalls, he was playing golf with Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, when the then-House majority whip dropped the name of another lobbyist who he thought might be a helpful ally. Hire Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist recalls DeLay advising him.
The lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, was taken aback by DeLay's bold pitch. "The reason I was so shocked was because at the time, I'd never heard of Abramoff," the lobbyist said in an interview.
Since the time of that golf outing -- and especially within the past year -- Abramoff's name has been mentioned often in Washington. A federal grand jury and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee are probing allegations of misconduct by Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon, a public-relations man and a former DeLay aide, involving some $66 million that six Indian tribes with casino operations paid the two men for representing the tribes both inside and outside the Beltway.
In his public statements over the past year, DeLay has sought to distance himself from Abramoff, who during his glory days on K Street often used DeLay's name to try to drum up business and to round up political donations.
Asked by reporters about Abramoff not long after the first stories on the scandal broke last year, DeLay said it would be wrong if "anybody is trading on my name to get clients or make money." And when National Journal recently asked DeLay's office to comment on the story on the golf outing, a spokesman for the now-House majority leader said, "It sounds like a hypothetical golf game that never took place, so it would be hard for me to respond."
Nonetheless, the ties between the powerful Texan and the former superlobbyist stretch back a decade and were forged and sustained by Abramoff's fundraising prowess and other lobbying stratagems. From 1997 through early 2004, Abramoff and his wife personally contributed $40,000 to DeLay's campaigns and his political action committee, ARMPAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Further, at least two of Abramoff's American Indian tribe clients, the Louisiana Coushattas and the Saginaw Chippewas, donated $38,000 to ARMPAC.
Some of Abramoff's clients and at least one conservative ally also helped underwrite trips taken by DeLay, as well as by some key staffers who later became lobbyists and in three cases worked with Abramoff.
"To the casual observer, it was a pretty simple deal," recalls one former GOP House leadership aide. "Jack raised money for the pet projects of DeLay and took care of his top staff. In turn, they granted him tremendous access and allowed him to freely trade on DeLay's name."
House travel records and interviews with GOP lobbyists suggest that Abramoff curried favor with DeLay and tried to boost his clients' causes through trips. As far back as 1997, Abramoff accompanied DeLay on foreign excursions to such places as London, Moscow, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In at least one instance, on a trip to England and Scotland in mid-2000, congressional gift rules may have been violated; Abramoff apparently filed a report with his law firm showing he picked up some of DeLay's expenses.
The trip's sponsor was the National Center for Public Policy Research, a little-known conservative think tank on whose board Abramoff served until several months ago. The 2000 trip, from May 25 to June 3, mixed business with pleasure. DeLay had a meeting with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and conservative leaders in Scotland, and played golf at Scotland's storied St. Andrews.
According to the House travel records filed by DeLay's office -- and verified separately by the center -- the center picked up roughly $28,000 in expenses for DeLay and his wife, Christine, as well as $28,000 for DeLay's then-Chief of Staff Susan Hirschmann and her husband, and $14,000 for DeLay aide Tony Rudy, who, some two years later, joined Abramoff as a lobbying partner at the firm Greenberg Traurig. Total expenses for the trip were close to $70,000.
Separately, National Journal has obtained a copy of an expense voucher for the same trip that Abramoff filed with Preston Gates & Ellis, the law firm where he was then a leading lobbyist and rainmaker. Abramoff's voucher lists the purpose of the trip as "client relations" and names "MS Choctaw" as the client account to which the expenses were allocated. At the time, Abramoff and Preston Gates were representing the Mississippi Choctaws, a tribe that runs casinos.
The voucher shows that Abramoff was accompanied by DeLay and his wife; Hirschmann and her husband; and Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff who had also become a lobbyist. Among the big-ticket expenses that Abramoff listed for reimbursement was a bill for the DeLays at the Four Seasons Hotel in London in the amount of $4,285.35. The voucher shows that the total reimbursement for expenses was $13,318.50. For some reason, it shows that both Abramoff and Buckham were owed that amount.
Under House gift rules, a member, officer, or employee may not accept travel expenses from a registered lobbyist, agent of a foreign principal, or a lobbying firm. The rule stipulates that the prohibition applies even when the lobbyist, agent, or firm is later reimbursed for those expenses by a non-lobbyist client.
"It's clear from House rules that while a member may accept reimbursement for travel from certain sources, they may not receive travel expenses from a registered lobbyist, agent of a foreign principal, or a lobbying firm," said Stan Brand, a former House counsel and a partner at the law firm Brand & Frulla.
"It certainly appears from Abramoff's expense voucher that House ethics rules were violated by a lobbyist having paid for lodging expenses of Representative DeLay and his chief of staff," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, who added that the apparent violation was another reason for the House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee to investigate whether Abramoff did financial favors for members and staffers.
Responding to questions about Abramoff being on the trip and the billing for some DeLay expenses, a DeLay spokesman said he couldn't confirm Abramoff's presence. "We did everything we were supposed to do and disclosed the expenses that the national center provided us," said DeLay aide Dan Allen. "We have no control over what somebody may have done beyond that. This is the first time we are hearing of this expense report."
A spokesman for Abramoff's attorney, Abbe Lowell, issued a broad statement saying that the ongoing Senate and Justice Department investigations make it impossible for Abramoff to defend his work "in the public arena."
A spokesman for Preston Gates said that the firm would not comment for this story.
The Senate committee that is investigating Abramoff has raised the issue of foreign travel in another context. At a hearing last year, testimony revealed that in 2002, Abramoff solicited $100,000 from two Indian tribes to help pay for a golfing junket to Scotland in August of that year that included House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, Abramoff, and other lobbyists. The nonprofit Capital Athletic Foundation, which was run by Abramoff and to which the Choctaws and the Coushattas each donated $1 million, sponsored the trip.
The Senate and Justice Department probes are also looking into allegations related to the work that Abramoff and Scanlon did for their Indian tribe clients between 2001 and early 2004, including charges that the duo secretly split at least $42 million in fees that were paid to companies run by Scanlon. Investigators are also probing some of the millions of dollars in contributions that the tribes made, at Abramoff's suggestion, to a few nonprofit groups and reportedly some political campaigns.
Regarding the 2000 trip to England and Scotland, the National Center for Public Policy Research declined through an attorney to comment on whether Abramoff had helped to arrange financing for the trip, or whether he had done fundraising while he was a board member of the center.
According to the center's 990 disclosure forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service from 2000 to 2003, Abramoff seems to have had clout in the group: During this period, one of the center's largest payments to an individual or group was a "consulting" fee of $1.28 million in 2003 paid to Kaygold, a private company that Abramoff apparently controlled.
The national center also declined comment on that payment. The Washington Post has reported that the center received a $1.07 million donation from the Mississippi Choctaws.
Abramoff had long successfully lobbied DeLay and his staff on Choctaw matters. In 1995, for instance, he worked with DeLay and other House conservatives to kill a proposed tax on Indian gambling, an issue that was a top priority to the Choctaws. Moreover, DeLay and a few of his key staffers had also enjoyed the tribe's resort facilities; according to House travel records in the summer of 1998, DeLay, his wife, and Susan Hirschmann spent a couple of days at the Choctaws' resort, which included a casino, golf course, and spa, in Mississippi.
And the 2000 trip to the British Isles wasn't the only foreign excursion involving DeLay and Abramoff that the center sponsored. In August 1997, the center sponsored a trip to Russia for DeLay and several of his top staffers. The one-week trip was described on DeLay's travel disclosure forms as a fact-finding mission. It involved meetings with Russian officials, including then-Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, and religious leaders concerned about religious freedom. The bill for DeLay and his entourage, including Hirschmann and Buckham, totaled about $60,000.
Abramoff, who was there for at least part of the Russia trip, was registered at the time to lobby for a Bahama-based company called Chelsea Commercial Enterprises, whose principals lived in Moscow. According to the Bahama company's lobbying registration, Chelsea was trying to "generate support" for the Russian government's policies in the areas of bilateral trade and "progressive market reforms."
Other trips over the years also seemed to help Abramoff ingratiate himself with DeLay and his top staffers. For instance, Abramoff and DeLay famously spent time together in the Northern Marianas on trips that combined business with golf and other entertainment. For the Northern Marianas, DeLay was Abramoff's leading ally in a successful effort in Congress to let the islands keep a cherished exemption from U.S. labor and immigration law. This exemption allowed garment makers there to pay imported laborers $2 an hour less than the minimum wage in the United States. On a New Year's trip to the Marianas to ring in 1998, DeLay, according to media reports, called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends."
GOP operatives say that all the travel with DeLay helped to boost Abramoff's stature with his clients and, ultimately, his bottom line. "Jack's business model was growing clients rather than getting new ones," one GOP operative recalls. "DeLay was instrumental, in Jack's mind. If the clients equate Jack with DeLay, then obviously Jack's in a strong position to increase his retainer. Foreign trips were part of the work-hard, play-hard DeLay philosophy. To that end, Jack Abramoff was director of travel for DeLay Inc."