Abramoff Had Closer Ties to Bush
By Jason Leopold
Imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff was photographed with President George W. Bush at least five times and had hundreds of lobbying contacts with White House staff, a House committee’s draft report says.
Hundreds of pages of documents, released Monday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, show that Abramoff regularly communicated with former White House political adviser Karl Rove and his deputies regarding the administration’s domestic agenda.
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty two years ago to corruption charges, had 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004, including 170 meetings over meals and 16 meetings over drinks, the report said.
Committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, also complained that his investigation was hampered by six unnamed individuals who asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, including three White House officials.
Waxman’s committee released six photographs of Abramoff and members of his family posing with Bush at GOP fundraisers and White House functions. Some of the photos were autographed by the President.
In January 2006, when one such photograph surfaced, Bush dismissed it as meaningless and insisted he barely knew the man.
“You know, I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy,” Bush said. “I don't know him. I can't say I didn't ever meet him, but I meet a lot of people. … I've had my picture taken with a lot of people.”
When the President was pressed for details about whether he was personally lobbied by Abramoff, Bush said “I've never sat down with him and had a discussion with the guy.”
The White House also maintained that Abramoff’s relationship with Bush administration officials was minimal and that the lobbyist was unsuccessful in influencing policy decisions. Rove called him a “casual acquaintance.”
However, the committee report, entitled “Jack Abramoff’s Contact With White House Officials,” painted a different picture.
“Senior White House officials held Mr. Abramoff and others on his team in high regard,” the report said. “Communications from Mr. Abramoff and his associates carried weight with White House officials. In some instances, White House officials took action that advanced Mr. Abramoff’s lobbying goals.
“Other times, White House officials reached out to Mr. Abramoff and his team to seek their views on policy matters. And the documents contain examples in which White House officials gave consideration to Mr. Abramoff’s communications in policy deliberations even though they ultimately did not take the action requested by Mr. Abramoff.”
The report said Abramoff did succeed in getting the White House to fire State Department official Alan Stayman, who advocated reforms in the Northern Mariana Islands that threatened the business interests of Abramoff’s clients.
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands paid Abramoff’s law firm some $6.7 million from 1995 to 2001 to protect the islands’ exemptions from U.S. labor and minimum wage laws, while the U.S. protectorate was allowed to stamp “Made in the USA” labels on manufactured goods.
In one exchange about the trouble being caused by Stayman, Matt Schlapp, director of the White House Office of Political Affairs from 2003 to 2005, e-mailed Monica Kladakis, deputy associate director of presidential personnel, to inquire “how do we fix this?”
Kladakis responded: “I think we can do something about it, but I’m trying to figure out what is the best way to go about it. I don’t want a firing scandal on our hands.”
Both Rove and deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley “were informed of Mr. Abramoff’s opposition to Mr Stayman,” the report said. Rove, who was considered Bush’s closest political adviser, resigned as White House deputy chief of staff in 2007. Hadley is now national security adviser.
The report said White House officials also accepted favors from Abramoff.
“White House officials joined Abramoff team members for expensive meals and … White House officials were offered and accepted expensive tickets to sporting and entertainment events from Abramoff associates,” the report said.
The tickets included floor-level seats at Washington Wizards basketball games, ice-level seats at Washington Capitals hockey games, box seats at Baltimore Orioles baseball games, and prime seats to U2 and Bruce Springsteen concerts.
The records also indicated that Abramoff lobbyists billed their clients over $24,000 for meals and drinks involving White House officials.
In an apparent effort to keep the contacts out of the official White House records systems, Abramoff communicated with Rove and others through non-governmental e-mail accounts that were maintained by the Republican National Committee.
Waxman’s Oversight Committee first discovered administration officials were using these non-governmental e-mail accounts last year.
"That investigation found that many of the e-mail exchanges between Jack Abramoff and White House officials were conducted via non-governmental e-mail accounts," Waxman said in letters to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign.
Using alternative e-mail accounts to conduct official White House business is a violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 which states that the records of a President, his immediate staff and specific areas of the Executive Office of the President belong to the United States, not to the individual President or his staff.
The act further states that the President must "take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as presidential records pursuant to the requirements of this section and other provisions of law."
Waxman said that in some cases White House officials were using alternative e-mail accounts to avoid creating an automatic paper trail of their communications about hot-button political issues.
For instance, Waxman said Abramoff sent an e-mail to Rove’s assistant Susan Ralston, which asked her to “pass on to Karl that Interior is about to approve a gaming compact ... for a tribe which is an anathema to all our supporters" and requesting "some quiet message from WH that this is absurd."
The e-mail was forwarded to Jennifer Farley, an official in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs who apparently warned Kevin Ring, an Abramoff associate, about the risk of creating an official record.
“I don't know what to think about this, but she said it is better not to put this stuff in writing in their e-mail system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.,” Ring told Abramoff. “Just letting you know what she said.'"
Abramoff responded to that exchange, according to Waxman, writing in an e-mail, "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system."