Shortly after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, tribal leaders of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians approached lobbyist Jack Abramoff with a problem. The tribe's Silver Star Hotel & Casino had barely opened and already legislation was moving forward in Congress calling for Indian casinos to be taxed in the same manner as Las Vegas gambling facilities.
Abramoff knew how to take care of the Choctaws. He convinced the House Republican leadership that it had violated a core principle of the new conservative majority: It had raised taxes. The legislation was scuttled.
With Indian gambling revenue now exceeding $16 billion annually, Abramoff's success saved the tribes hundreds of millions of dollars. Soon, he was representing half a dozen other Indian tribes, some paying his firm $2 million or more a year.
In less than a decade, Abramoff's ties to Republican congressional leaders and powerbrokers in the conservative movement catapulted him into the highest ranks of Washington lobbyists. By 2003, Abramoff's clients -- including the Business Roundtable, Atofina Chemicals, Humana, Primedia Inc. and tribal clients -- paid his law firm $11.57 million in fees, one of the highest such sums in Washington.
Paving the way for Abramoff's rise were his ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.
Abramoff's success lay in his ability to portray clients as exemplars of successful free market competition under attack by overzealous Democrats. On behalf of Indian tribes and other clients, Abramoff convinced the GOP majority that Democrats were bent on regulating and taxing the entrepreneurial vitality out of the U.S. economy. In effect, he turned conservative orthodoxy into a cash spigot.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), said Abramoff convinced him that "it was the conservatives who would be the saviors of the Indians by providing an environment where they could be self-sufficient and run their own affairs instead of being like inner-city welfare recipients."
Now, however, the $66 million that Abramoff and his business partner, public affairs consultant Michael Scanlon, charged Indian tribes has become the focus of separate investigations by a federal grand jury and Congress. The controversy has produced disclosures embarrassing to some of Abramoff's political allies.
Already, the inquiries have revealed that Abramoff and Scanlon -- DeLay's former spokesman -- channeled money to Reed and Norquist's organizations. Reed has been forced to explain receipt of money channeled from casinos through Abramoff; Norquist, in turn, has denied that the payments he received drove the pro-tribe agenda of Americans for Tax Reform.
Abramoff declined to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post, Abramoff spokesman Peter G. Mirijanian said: "The current controversy has temporarily prevented him from engaging in the activism which animated his life and gave him fulfillment, and this pains him greatly."
Ideologue to Lobbyist
The 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate was a crucial moment in Abramoff's transformation from a conservative ideologue into an influential lobbyist. He became a valuable commodity, a conservative K Street figure with direct access to the newly powerful right wing of the Republican Party.
Abramoff, 46, grew up in Margate, N.J., and moved in his early teens to Beverly Hills, where his father was president of the Diners Club credit-card franchises. At Beverly Hills High, Abramoff was an all-conference football lineman and regional weightlifting champion. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1980 and later received a law degree from Georgetown.
Abramoff came to Washington in 1981 after becoming chairman of the College Republicans. The organization has produced some of the party's top operatives: Karl Rove, now President Bush's chief political adviser, was elected chairman in 1973. Lee Atwater, who went on to manage George H.W. Bush's successful 1988 presidential bid, ran southern operations for the Rove campaign.
In 1981, Norquist became Abramoff's executive director at the College Republicans. Reed signed on as an intern and took over as executive director in 1983.