The next year, Trezise said, "Congress determined that they could get the money even though they were not receiving [Indian School Equalization Program] funding."
Ryan Thomas, a Burns staffer on the appropriations subcommittee, took the lead in tangling with Interior officials over the funding, former department officials said. He did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Thomas had close ties to some members of Abramoff's lobbying team, former Abramoff associates said. He and Will M. Brooke, Burns's chief of staff, traveled to the 2001 Super Bowl on the Abramoff corporate jet, along with several staffers from the office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
"I was told it was tribal funded," Brooke said yesterday of the trip. He noted that Senate ethics rules permit staffers to accept gifts from federal, state or local governments, including tribal governments.
The trip was actually sponsored by Suncruz, a Florida casino cruise line then owned by Abramoff and several partners, said people formerly associated with Suncruz, Abramoff's lobbying team and the Fort Lauderdale firm that leased the jet. Brooke confirmed that the staffers were taken out to a Suncruz gambling ship during the trip.
Brooke left Burns's staff and went to work for Abramoff's group at the end of 2003, two months after the adoption of an Interior Appropriations conference report that included other provisions benefiting Abramoff clients, among them the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts. That language urged the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move on the tribe's long-standing request for recognition, a first step toward gaining the right to open a casino.
Brooke said yesterday he did no work on that issue while on Burns's staff and was under a one-year ban on lobbying his former boss after he joined Abramoff's team.
Shawn Vasell, another member of Abramoff's lobbying team, served as client manager on the Mississippi Choctaw account, and shuttled between jobs in Burns's Montana office and Abramoff's shop. Vasell was registered as a lobbyist for the Choctaw and Coushatta tribes in 2001, joined Burns's staff in 2002, then rejoined Abramoff's team as a lobbyist for the tribes in 2003.
"I was not lobbied by Jack's team in 2002. In 2003, I was under a one-year lobbying ban I strictly adhered to," he said in an interview.