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Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying

"Bob," Leger Short said in an interview last week, was Bob Brooks, McCrery's chief of staff, who went on a golfing trip to St. Andrews in Scotland later that summer with Abramoff. Brooks did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Abramoff lobbyist Todd Boulanger drafted a stiff letter to Norton warning, "we hold you accountable" to shoot down "reservation shopping" by the Jenas. Boulanger's proposed signatories were House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The draft was circulated by e-mail to Abramoff and others on the team.

The Players

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton ultimately ruled in favor of the Jenas Band of Choctaws' casino application.

J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy at Interior, allegedly mounted a late but unsuccessful challenge to the Jenas' plan.

Jack Abramoff, lobbying for a competing Indian tribe, mobilized anti-Jenas efforts outside and inside Washington.

David Vitter, then a congressman from Louisiana, urged Norton in February 2002 to turn down the Jenas' application.

Michael Scanlon and Abramoff were paid $32 million by the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, which operated a casino in the state.

Ralph Reed was paid up to $4 million by Abramoff and Scanlon to organize anti- gambling campaigns in Texas and Louisiana.

Opponents of the Jenas' bid invoked the name of evangelical leader James Dobson in order to pressure federal officials.

In June, Norton received a slightly toned-down version of the letter, this one bearing the House leaders' signatures.

Last-Ditch Efforts

But the prospects for the Jenas at Interior were growing stronger in Round Two, because career officials found their new plan more palatable. That was when Griles, who was rarely involved in Indian issues, sought to intervene, according to two former senior department officials.

"He demanded to be involved, and said he did not want to see the Jena casino shoved down the throat of Louisianans," one of the former officials said.

Both former officials said Griles turned up with a thick binder containing letters and legal arguments opposing the Jena plan. Griles said it came from a congressional staffer, but when challenged by Michael G. Rossetti, who was then Interior's general counsel, he acknowledged that it had probably been put together by Abramoff, one of the former officials said.

In front of several senior staff members, Rossetti clashed with Griles, telling him he did not want Norton's decision process on the Jenas influenced by "outside people," according to a person who was present.

FBI and Interior investigators are examining Griles's binder as part of their probe, according to two people familiar with the matter. Griles, who previously came under scrutiny from the department's inspector general for maintaining close ties to his former lobbying firm and energy clients, left his Interior post last December to return to consulting.

As Norton's decision on the Jenas neared, Vitter, the Louisiana congressman, made one more try. Working with Abramoff's legal team, he said, his staff drafted language that he placed in an Appropriations conference report that urged the Interior Department to prevent the Jenas from establishing a casino on lands outside their historic tribal area.

Despite the extraordinary lobbying efforts, Norton in late December approved the Jena plan to acquire land for a casino in Logansport. Interior spokesman DuBray said that the department's decision making on the Jenas' application was properly "based on the facts of the case and application of the law."

But the tribe got stalled again in Louisiana. Foster, who had originally backed the tribe's bid, unexpectedly decided to leave the issue to his successor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. The new governor opposes the Logansport plan on the grounds that any expansion of gambling is undesirable. The Jenas are back to seeking a site for their casino.

Researchers Alice Crites and Julie Tate and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.

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