Abramoff-Scanlon School of Sleaze

Wednesday's Senate hearings yielded more scandalous revelations about how the dynamic lobbying duo bilked American Indian tribes out of millions and used the money to win elections for their Republican clients.

Topics:

Abramoff-Scanlon School of Sleaze

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.

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>