By Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 26, 2004
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.
Abramoff or one of the lobbyists who worked for him at Greenberg Traurig, and earlier at the firm now known as Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, arranged the fundraisers, former Abramoff associates said.
"It was kind of Jack's box. It was owned by Jack, not Greenberg Traurig. He was very proud of it," said a former associate from Greenberg Traurig. "Everything was always catered; Jack would pay for the catering. It was about $1,000 an event."
Keeping track of events, catering and ticket distribution required the nearly full-time attention of an administrative assistant, said two former Abramoff associates familiar with the logistics of the box management. Abramoff billed the tribes for the costs associated with the skyboxes through a company he created called Sports Suites LLC.
Doolittle, one of dozens of House members to use the skyboxes, was particularly close to Abramoff, former Abramoff associates said. The fundraiser list, obtained by The Washington Post, indicates that he was signed up to use boxes at MCI Center and Camden Yards on five occasions. Doolittle's spokeswoman, Laura Blackmann, said the congressman used the MCI Center box for a fundraiser, but only once, on Feb. 25, 1999.
Of the other four occasions Doolittle is listed on Abramoff's fundraiser log, Blackmann said: "Abramoff may have reserved it, but we did not use it."
In enacting limits on congressional gifts, Congress set the value of skybox tickets at $49, under the $50 limit. Using that calculation, the donation of a box with space for 20 people for a fundraising event would have a value of almost $1,000.
Doolittle's federal election records do not show that he paid for the use of the boxes or reported their value as an in-kind contribution, a lapse Blackmann acknowledged. "It was an in-kind contribution, and it was an oversight that it wasn't reported, but we are taking steps to correct that," she said recently.
An event planning firm operated by Doolittle's wife, Julie, which did work with an Abramoff-sponsored charity, was issued a subpoena for documents this summer in the Justice Department inquiry.
A candidate for office who does not fully disclose such contributions can be subject to a fine to be determined by the Federal Election Commission. The more flagrant the violation, the steeper the fine tends to be.
Abramoff's most powerful ally on the Hill, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), another gaming opponent, held a fundraiser in the MCI Center box for the performance of the Three Tenors on May 7, 2000, according to the list of events maintained in Abramoff's office. The list also shows he held an event in a box at FedEx Field on Sept. 18, 2000.
DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said that DeLay's fundraising aides remember sending out invitations for the Three Tenors event to reward donors and that the event probably occurred. There was no obligation to report the use of the box under federal law, he said, because the site was used for an event that benefited DeLay's state political action committee.
The office found no record of the use of Abramoff's box for a fundraiser at a Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game on Sept. 18, 2000, as listed in Abramoff's records. "We don't have anything indicating it was offered or utilized," Roy said. "We just don't know."
Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) hosted four fundraising events in Abramoff boxes but did not pay for the use of the boxes or report them as gifts, his spokesman confirmed. After he was asked about the fundraisers, Hayworth's chief of staff said the congressman intends to amend his FEC reports to correct the oversight.
Hayworth, co-chairman of the Native American Caucus, did have contact with the tribes Abramoff and his team represented.
After The Post questioned Hayworth's office about his failure to disclose his skybox fundraising events, an aide said staffers had contacted the FEC about the mistake and planned to amend the congressman's filings. Abramoff's firm never sent a letter telling the Hayworth campaign the value of the in-kind contributions, said Joe Eule, Hayworth's chief of staff. "From talking to other people," Eule said, "this is how things happened over there. People would request these letters, and they'd never be forthcoming."
Fundraising events were held at only a fraction of the many games at the three venues. The rest of the time, the boxes were filled with Abramoff's lobbyists and congressional staffers they sought to cultivate. Members of his lobbying team typically carried around wads of tickets to dole out to Hill aides.
Abramoff not only lobbied staffers, he regularly hired them. Three former aides to DeLay worked as lobbyists for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig: former deputy chiefs of staff Tony Rudy and Bill Jarrell; and former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon, who formed a public relations company that worked in tandem with Abramoff.
Other Hill veterans joined Abramoff's lobbying team and entertained their former congressional colleagues in the skyboxes, including former aides for Doolittle, Sens. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), John Breaux (D-La.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), and Young, the representative from Alaska.
Abramoff's fundraising log shows an event for Ney at MCI Center on March 15, 2001. FEC records show that Abramoff and three men associated with him in a Florida-based casino cruise line called Suncruz each donated $1,000 to Ney that day.
Ney had been helpful to them the year before, when Abramoff and a partner, Adam Kidan, were embroiled in acrimonious efforts to buy Suncruz. In an unusual step, Ney criticized the cruise line's owner, Gus Boulis, in statements placed in the March 30, 2000, Congressional Record, putting pressure on Boulis to sell; he then praised Kidan as Suncruz's new owner when the sale went through.
The following year, five weeks before the MCI Center fundraiser for Ney, Boulis was slain gangland style in a case that is under investigation. The FBI also is investigating possible bank fraud in the purchase of Suncruz, law enforcement sources said. An attorney for Abramoff said he and the banks involved "were victims of the wrongdoing of others."
Neil Volz, Ney's chief of staff, joined Abramoff's lobbying team in early 2002. Last month, Ney amended his FEC reports to reflect in-kind contributions of $1,470 from Volz for fundraising events at MCI Center in 2002 and 2003.
Kidan, contacted for this article, said Suncruz contributed $310,000 toward the cost of the skyboxes in 2000.
Abramoff's other tribe-funded perk for House Republican leaders was his downtown restaurant, Signatures. DeLay and others occasionally met for private lunches in the back room, a source familiar with the restaurant's management said.
Many meal receipts for members, staff and Abramoff's team were turned over to Greenberg Traurig; the firm then billed the tribes, said this source and others, including people associated with the tribes. Signatures, said the source, was a money drain on Abramoff, operating at a deficit of tens of thousands of dollars a month.
The person who has seen bills sent to the Agua Caliente tribe said they sometimes listed the lobbyists present and the guests who were entertained, but not always.
On occasions when fundraising events were at Signatures, said Lowell, "either tribes or the campaigns themselves properly underwrote the use of the restaurant and, again, the reporting requirements belong to the campaigns."
Jill Perry, director of marketing and communications for Greenberg Traurig, said in a statement that "the conduct by Mr. Abramoff which has come to light since he left Greenberg Traurig is antithetical to the way we do business and contrary to our firm's values and culture. We continue to conduct a comprehensive internal investigation of these matters."
Researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.