For most politicians, fundraising is a dreaded chore. But until recently, Rep. John T. Doolittle of California and other members of the House Republican leadership had adopted a painless solution: fundraising events in luxury sports boxes leased largely with the money of Indian gaming tribes, where supporters snacked on catered fare in plush surroundings as they watched the Wizards, Caps, Redskins or Orioles.
Doolittle, a Mormon, is an ardent opponent of casino gambling, so it is somewhat ironic that he would invite supporters to watch the Wizards play the Sacramento Kings from an MCI Center suite paid for by casino-rich Indian tribes. But the plaque at the door to Suite 204 did not say Chitimacha or Choctaw. It said "Jack Abramoff," a name synonymous with largesse and influence in the GOP-controlled Congress.
Until the power lobbyist's downfall this year, Abramoff spent about $1 million annually in funds largely provided by his tribal clients to lease four skyboxes -- two at FedEx Field and one each at MCI Center and Camden Yards. Season after season, he kept them brimming with lawmakers, staffers and their guests, part of a multimillion-dollar congressional care and feeding project that even the brashest K Street lobbyists could only watch with awe or envy.
Lobbyists entertain lawmakers and their staffs routinely -- so much so that congressional rules limit the extent of it to avoid the appearance of impropriety. But Abramoff and the lobbyists who worked for him took spending for this form of hospitality to unprecedented heights. They used tribal money, records and interviews show, to pay for events that appeared to be designed more to help House Republicans' campaigns and Abramoff's overall lobbying effort than the Indians' legislative causes. Some members of Congress involved actively opposed Indian gambling.
"Jack Abramoff had one of the biggest schmoozing operations in town," said Rob Jennings, president of American Event Consulting Inc., an organization that raises funds for Republicans.
A list of skybox fundraising events maintained by Abramoff at his former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, lists 72 events for members of Congress between 1999 and 2003. All but eight were put on for Republicans, many of them members of the House leadership. Some of the fundraising events, including Doolittle's, were not reported as required under federal election laws.
A few blocks from MCI Center, Abramoff also wined and dined politicians and their aides at Signatures, his expensive Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, billing tribal clients for hundreds of thousands of dollars in meals there, sources familiar with the billings said. The Agua Caliente tribe of California, for example, paid Greenberg Traurig as much as $20,000 a month in lobbyists' expenses, much of it for meals at Signatures, a person who has examined the bills said. In some months the tribe was billed for more than 20 luncheon and dinner events.
The Agua Caliente also paid $300,000 toward the cost of the skyboxes one year, tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich said.
Federal investigators are examining tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees Abramoff obtained from the tribes. They are also looking into his dealings with members of Congress and their staffs, lawyers involved in the inquiry said. Senior prosecutors in the Justice Department's fraud and public integrity sections are poring over hundreds of thousands of e-mails, computer files and bank records subpoenaed from Abramoff and former associates, including records of campaign contributions and trips, meals and gifts such as the use of skyboxes that Abramoff lavished on members of Congress.
Abramoff, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, was forced to resign from Greenberg Traurig after disclosures earlier this year about the lobbying and public relations fees he and an associate charged a group of Indian tribes. The Senate Indian Affairs committee has tallied fees from six tribes that total $82 million over a three-year period.
Abramoff's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that "Indian tribes made permissible and lawful contributions to underwrite the use of sports suites for various fundraisers. Whether these contributions were properly reported was the responsibility of the campaigns, not the tribes nor Mr. Abramoff."
Other lobbyists said that it was highly unusual for a single lobbyist to control so many sports boxes. According to John F. Jonas of Patton Boggs LLP, "Personally leasing four skyboxes is highly unusual and excessive. [But] it seems to be in character with his excessive fees."
Although some tribal members complained about the fees and expenses, most of the tribes' leaders were convinced by Abramoff that the spending was necessary to advance their interests in Washington.
The big prize for members of Congress was in the more than $3.5 million in federal campaign contributions that six tribes made at Abramoff's direction, two-thirds of it to Republicans. The meals and the games were added perks that provided settings for Abramoff and the 10 or so lobbyists who worked for him to obtain access to members and ingratiate themselves to congressional aides.