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Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying
"We just found out that Billy Tauzin is now supporting the Jena effort to put the casino in McCrery's district!" Abramoff said in an e-mail to Federici on Feb. 18, 2003. ". . . This will be a PR disaster as you can imagine, especially if for some reason Interior agrees to approve this deal. McCrery and Vitter (the other R's in the delegation) are furious beyond belief. This is going to get really ugly. Please let Steve know about this. Thanks so much Italia!"
Former Abramoff associates said the "Steve" referred to by Abramoff was Steven Griles.
Federici, citing the ongoing federal investigation, declined to comment on why Abramoff would ask her to communicate with Griles on his behalf. Interior spokesman Dan DuBray said the department's inspector general is reviewing contacts between Griles and Federici as part of the government's Abramoff investigation.
D.C. Superior Court records show that Federici listed Griles as a witness in her lawsuit against the owner of a Watergate apartment where she lived. Federici contended that Griles had a conversation with the owner about her rental arrangements.
Federici and her lawyer declined to comment on the e-mail or her relationship with Griles. "You have the documents. They say what they say. I don't want her responding to this," lawyer Michael G. Scheininger said.
The Coushattas and the Saginaw Chippewa in Michigan, also an Abramoff client, say they paid Federici's group a total of $225,000 during the Jena fight. Federici said she could not confirm the amount because environmental groups guard the privacy of their donors. "We live and die by that rule, just as the Sierra Club does," she said.
Federici said she would be disturbed "if any tribe is intimating they were solicited by CREA for anything other than environmental work. CREA's money is spent on environmental work, period."
McCrery, in whose district the Jena now planned to build, wanted to introduce "a bill to address the Jena issue," according to an e-mail Leger Short sent in May to Abramoff. She wrote that "Bob" sent her a draft bill, which she circulated for reaction, and said she was to meet with him the following day.
"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.
In June, Norton received a slightly toned-down version of the letter, this one bearing the House leaders' signatures.
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.