Four months after he took the oath of office in 2001, President George W. Bush was the attraction, and the White House the venue, for a fundraiser organized by the alleged perpetrator of the largest billing fraud in the history of corporate lobbying. In May 2001, Jack Abramoff’s lobbying client book was worth $4.1 million in annual billing for the Greenberg Traurig law firm. He was a friend of Bush advisor Karl Rove. He was a Bush “Pioneer,” delivering at least $100,000 in bundled contributions to the 2000 campaign. He had just concluded his work on the Bush Transition Team as an advisor to the Department of the Interior. He had sent his personal assistant Susan Ralston to the White House to work as Rove’s personal assistant. He was a close friend, advisor, and high-dollar fundraiser for the most powerful man in Congress, Tom DeLay. Abramoff was so closely tied to the Bush Administration that he could, and did, charge two of his clients $25,000 for a White House lunch date and a meeting with the President. From the same two clients he took to the White House in May 2001, Abramoff also obtained $2.5 million in contributions for a non-profit foundation he and his wife operated.
Abramoff’s White House guests were the chiefs of two of the six casino-rich Indian tribes he and his partner Mike Scanlon ultimately billed $82 million for services tribal leaders now claim were never performed or were improperly performed. Together the six tribes would make $10 million in political contributions, at Abramoff’s direction, almost all of it to Republican campaigns of his choosing. On May 9, 2001, when he ushered the two tribal chiefs into the White House to meet the President, The Washington Post story that would end his lobbying career and begin two Senate Committee investigations was three years away. (When the Post story broke in February 2004, however, Abramoff and Scanlon, a former Tom DeLay press aide, were already targets of a U.S. Attorney’s investigation in Washington.)
Abramoff brought the Coushatta and Choctaw chiefs to Washington at the request of Grover Norquist. Norquist is founder and director of Americans for Tax Reform, the advocacy group committed to slashing taxes until the federal government is so small you “can drown it in the bathtub.” Norquist started ATR in 1985. His power increased exponentially in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and he collaborated with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay to launch the “K Street Project”—a coordinated campaign to compel lobbyists to contribute only to Republican candidates and ultimately to hire only Republicans. Like Abramoff and Rove, Norquist considered George Bush’s victory over Al Gore the culmination of a project the three Washington insiders started 30 years ago as national leaders of the College Republicans.
Since the Post’s Susan Schmidt broke the Jack Abramoff story, the media has focused on the stunning $82 million Abramoff and Scanlon billed six tribes for lobbying and public relations work. Far less attention has been paid to the political contributions, by Abramoff’s account $10 million, made by the six tribes. That piece of the story involves the K Street Project, which moves the money of corporate lobbyists and their clients into the accounts of Republican candidates, PACs, and issue advocacy groups.
Republican Campaign Accounts
Abramoff advised tribal leaders that the contributions were the cost of doing business in Washington, where he could protect them from other tribes trying to open casinos to compete with those that already had them. He sent orders for the checks to be cut, designating each recipient. On March 6, 2002, for example, Coushatta Tribal Council Chair Lovelin Poncho followed Abramoff’s orders and disbursed $336,300 in tribal funds, according to tribal accounting ledgers obtained by the Observer.
The Coushattas, a southwest Louisiana tribe of 837 members, operate a casino that does an estimated $300 million in annual business. The $32 million they paid Abramoff and Scanlon makes the tribe the largest victim of the fraud their lawyers now allege in a lawsuit filed by Texas plaintiff’s firm Provost Umphrey. The tribe also contributed what tribal council member David Sickey said was probably “many millions” of dollars to political causes and charities designated by Abramoff.
Since we first reported the White House ATR fundraiser and the $1 million contribution to the Capital Athletic Foundation (see “K Street Croupiers,” November 19, 2004), the Coushattas, speaking through Austin attorneys at Hance, Scarborough, Wright, Ginsburg & Brusilow, and through Louisiana political consultant Roy Fletcher, have vociferously denied that tribal Chairman Poncho visited the White House after contributing $25,000 to ATR. They also denied the $1 million contribution to Abramoff’s foundation. Recently the story has changed. Or at least the version told by the majority that controls the council has begun to change. Two minority members of the five-seat council have pointed to the pay-to-play meeting with President Bush and the $1 million contribution to Abramoff as examples of the council’s financial mismanagement. One of the two members of the minority faction, David Sickey, has regularly made himself available to the press. Normally, press inquiries to the council majority are answered by Hance Scarborough, by Roy Fletcher, or occasionally by sources close to the council majority.
According to a source close to the tribal majority, Chairman Poncho recently “revisited that issue” of his visit to the White House. He had previously denied it because he thought he was responding to press inquiries that implied he had a one-on-one meeting with Bush. He now recalls that he in fact did go to the White House on May 9, 2001. Tribal attorney Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof went with him, although she did not get into the meeting with the President. That meeting lasted for about 15 minutes and was not a one-on-one meeting. At the meeting, Bush made some general comments about Indian policy but did not discuss Indian gaming. Abramoff was at the meeting—for which he charged the Coushatta Tribe $25,000. The change in Poncho’s position is odd in light of the fact that he and his spokespersons have maintained for more than a year that he did not meet with President Bush in May 2001.
Norquist has not responded to inquiries about using the White House as a fundraiser. It is, however, a regular ATR practice to invite state legislators and tribal leaders who have supported ATR anti-tax initiatives to the White House for a personal thank-you from the President. A source at ATR said no money is ever accepted from participants in these events. The $25,000 check from the Coushattas suggests that, at least in this instance, Norquist’s organization made an exception. The $75,000 collected from the Mississippi Choctaws and two corporate sponsors mentioned in Abramoff’s e-mail suggests there were other exceptions. Norquist recently wrote to the tribes who paid to attend White House meetings. His story regarding that event is also evolving. The contributions, he told tribal leaders in letters that went out in May, were in no way related to any White House event. That doesn’t square with the paper trail Abramoff and Norquist left behind, which makes it evident that they were selling access to the President.
The Coushatta Tribal Council majority has also revised its response to questions about the $1 million contribution, which critics in the tribe have insisted was made to Abramoff’s Capital Athletic Foundation in 2001. The foundation funded Abramoff’s Jewish prep school in Bethesda, MD, which closed soon after his lobbying scheme unraveled. When the Observer inquired in November 2004 about the $1 million contribution, we had obtained a copy of the Capital Athletic Foundation’s tax filing, but the contributor’s name was redacted. Following the lead of Lake Charles, Louisiana, American Press reporter Shawn Martin, the Observer last week obtained an un-redacted copy. The $1 million contribution, roughly 95 percent of what the foundation raised in 2001, was attributed to the Coushatta Tribe. A source working with the Coushatta Tribal Council majority said it now appears that the contribution was made in response to a bill sent by Mike Scanlon. Accountants working under the direction of Hance Scarborough found a $1-million Greenberg Traurig invoice that Scanlon sent the tribe. Scanlon routinely sent un-itemized bills for larger sums, which the tribe routinely paid. But as he was not a Greenberg Traurig employee, he billed on his own Capitol Campaign Strategies invoices. On the $1 million Greenberg Traurig invoice Scanlon sent the tribe in 2001, the company name was misspelled.
There will need to be more accounting, probably by different accountants. And perhaps by different legal representation, or at least under a different understanding between the tribe and its lawyers. In the May 28 tribal election on the Elton, LA reservation, a reform slate won a majority on the five-member council. Sickey, who five days before the election maintained that the $1 million contribution was made and that tribal chair Poncho indeed went to the White House in 2001, predicted the new majority will hire forensic accountants to determine where all the money went. (A week before the election he was looking for a tribal newsletter in which, he said, Poncho described his 2001 White House visit.) The shift on the council does not bode well for its Austin law firm. Hance Scarborough had gone to tribal court and successfully blocked a recall election that would have forced the council majority to stand for election a year ago, and David Sickey was a proponent of the recall. “Kent Hance doesn’t represent me or [the other minority dissident] Harold John,” said Sickey. “He represents Lovelin Poncho.”
The White House press office has not responded to our questions about other visits Jack Abramoff might have made to the White House or about Norquist using the official residence of the President to raise funds for Americans for Tax Reform. None of the political contributions Abramoff insisted the tribes make as yet have been returned.
Lou Dubose is a former Observer editor and co-author of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Rise of the Republican Congress. This story was written with support from the Fund for Constitutional Government.