Up-and-coming Republican hacks would do well to watch closely the ongoing Senate investigations of superstar lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his former business partner Michael Scanlon. The power duo stand accused of exploiting Native American tribes to the tune of roughly $66 million, laundering that money into bank accounts they controlled and then using it to buy favors for powerful members of Congress and the executive branch.
But they sure did know how to play the game.
Consider one memo highlighted in a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday that Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, sent the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to describe his strategy for protecting the tribe’s gambling business. In plain terms, Scanlon confessed the source code of recent Republican electoral victories: target religious conservatives, distract everyone else, and then railroad through complex initiatives.
“The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees,” Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them.” The brilliance of this strategy was twofold: Not only would most voters not know about an initiative to protect Coushatta gambling revenues, but religious “wackos” could be tricked into supporting gambling at the Coushatta casino even as they thought they were opposing it.
Another lesson from the Abramoff-Scanlon school: Pad your public numbers. In October 2001, the lobbying team decided to inflate the amount they were billing Indian tribes so Abramoff could make it into a “top ten” ranking of Native American lobbyists. They planned to tell the Coushatta tribe that $1 million was needed for a “public affairs” strategy. Then, by apparently falsifying an invoice from Abramoff’s law firm, Greenberg Traurig, they would reroute the money to a charity Abramoff had founded, which was paying to build a school for his children and give “sniper training” courses in Israel.
It worked like a dream, mainly because nobody knew what was happening — not the tribe, not the law firm, and certainly not the readers of the “top ten” ranking. Oversight was so lacking that it did not even matter that someone misspelled the name of Greenberg Traurig on the fraudulent invoice. “I doubt we would be issuing an invoice with our name misspelled,” said Fred Baggett, the head of Greenberg Traurig’s governmental affairs shop, who once worked closely with Abramoff. Asked to describe his former colleague, Baggett offered this faint praise: “He is an amazingly gifted person at having two sides to him.”
Others were less kind. Kevin Sickey, the chairman of the Coushatta Tribe, described Abramoff as greedy and corrupt. “He is the golden boy gone bad of the American political system,” Sickey said. William Worfel, a former Coushatta Tribal Council member, was even more blunt about the lobbying team. “In my mind, they are educated thieves who must be brought to justice,” he said.
Wednesday’s hearings provided just the latest in a long line of scandalous revelations about Abramoff’s lobbying operation, which is now under investigation by two Senate committees and the Justice Department. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chaired the meeting, said his committee was preparing “many” legal reforms that could prevent a repeat of the Abramoff debacle. “We’ll be coming out with that in about a week,” he said. The Indian Affairs committee is scheduled to hold one more hearing on Abramoff before issuing a report; it still needs to gather testimony from Italia Federici, a close associate of Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Federici is accused of setting up a meeting for Abramoff with Interior Department officials after her nonprofit company, Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, received six-figure donations from Abramoff’s clients. Environmentalists charge that Federici’s company — which was founded by Norton — is a front for big industry polluters. Federici was scheduled to testify Wednesday, but has so far ducked a Senate subpoena. “I believe U.S. marshals will do their duty,” McCain said. “She has been unable to be located.”
Abramoff, meanwhile, is already facing the prospect of significant jail time. He has been charged with fraud in connection with an unrelated casino deal in Florida, which ended in a gangland-style killing of the man Abramoff is alleged to have defrauded. (Several people have been charged with that killing, including two employees of a company controlled by Abramoff’s business partner, Adam Kidan.) At the same time, the former top procurement official in the White House, David Safavian, has been arrested on charges of lying about a trip he took to Scotland with Abramoff. Another former White House official, Timothy Flanigan, recently withdrew his nomination to become deputy attorney general, after it became clear that he would have to testify under oath to the Senate about his relationship with Abramoff.
On Wednesday, a third former Bush administration official, J. Steven Griles, was asked to account for his relationship with Abramoff, which is detailed in dozens of e-mails obtained by the Senate. Griles claimed that he had never done Abramoff’s bidding, despite Abramoff’s own boasts that Griles was working on his behalf, and might even consider a job at Greenberg Traurig after he left government. “I can’t reconcile what Mr. Abramoff put in e-mails to anyone,” said Griles, a former coal industry lobbyist who recently served as deputy secretary of the interior.
Griles’ denials were disputed by Michael Rossetti, a former counsel to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who said Griles had shown a “very keen interest” on one matter where Abramoff had an interest. “Mr. Rossetti has a different memory on that issue than I do,” said Griles, who appeared distraught, at times, during his testimony. “I don’t want to dispute a former friend of mine and a former colleague.” After the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the conflicting testimony created confusion about the facts. “Mr. Rossetti is very credible,” McCain said. A reporter asked if Griles was also credible. “He is certainly sincere,” said the senator.
There was much less doubt, however, about the skills of Abramoff and Scanlon. They collected huge amounts of money from their unwitting clients. In September of 2001, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon asking how much money he was set to collect from two of their Native American clients. “I need to assess where I am at for the school’s sake,” he wrote, in an apparent reference to his children’s Jewish day school, the Eshkol Academy, which Abramoff was secretly bankrolling with the Indian money. Scanlon wrote back, “Your project on the project as proposed is at least 800k.” All in all, Abramoff was set to earn “a total of 2.1″ million dollars, Scanlon wrote.
Abramoff responded to his business partner, “How can I say this strongly enough: YOU IZ DA MAN.”
If political infamy is the measure of a man, nobody in Washington doubts that now.