By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005
When a ragtag band of Louisiana Indians won their governor's support for a casino three years ago, they never could have fathomed the powerful cast of characters who would collaborate to flatten them.
Jack Abramoff, one of Washington's most prominent Republican lobbyists, tapped into the gambling riches of a rival tribe to orchestrate a far-reaching campaign against the Jena Band of Choctaws -- calling on senior U.S. senators and congressmen, the deputy secretary of the interior and evangelical leaders James Dobson and Ralph Reed.
The story of what Abramoff did for the Louisiana Coushatta tribe provides the most complete picture yet of the role of the lobbyist at the center of a widening federal corruption investigation in Washington. It was reconstructed through interviews with tribal leaders, government officials and former business associates, as well as through Interior Department and other documents and e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.
Abramoff arranged for Dobson and Reed to pressure federal officials to reject the Jenas' bid on anti-gambling grounds. He and his partners drafted anti-Jena letters that were then signed by congressional leaders, some of whom have received thousands of dollars in donations from tribes represented by Abramoff. One ally inserted language opposing the casino into a bill late in the legislative process.
And in an attempt to influence the Interior Department -- which has the final say on a tribe's gambling ambitions -- Abramoff directed his tribal clients to give at least $225,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a conservative group that was founded by Gale A. Norton before President Bush chose her to be his interior secretary. Federal officials are investigating the nature of the relationship between the group's president, Italia Federici, and Norton's then-deputy, J. Steven Griles.
The Jenas lost their first round. They came back to win approval for a second casino plan. Meantime, the spoils of the lobbying war have been bountiful.
Tribal money bolstered the campaign coffers of many members of Congress. Dobson had the opportunity to flex grass-roots muscle that he would later use to mobilize evangelicals for Bush's reelection. Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, quietly received as much as $4 million to whip up public sentiment against expansion of gambling in Louisiana and Texas. Reed's efforts, in turn, boosted support for a congressman from Louisiana who was elected last year to the U.S. Senate.
Abramoff profited, as well. He and Michael Scanlon, the public affairs executive he recommended to the tribe, were paid $32 million over three years by the Coushattas.
A Justice Department task force is examining the Jena episode as part of its investigation into the $82 million Abramoff and Scanlon were paid by tribes. Among the areas under scrutiny, according to sources with knowledge of the probe, are Abramoff's contacts with the Interior Department and with members of Congress; the payments to the Republican environmental group; the Griles-Federici relationship; and Griles's possible attempt to intervene in the casino decision.
A spokeswoman for Griles said he was unavailable for questions, but said Griles "didn't participate in any decision-making process regarding the Jena Band and gaming." Federici declined to discuss the nature of her relationship with Griles or the tribe's contributions to her group, but said all of her group's activities involve environmental issues. A spokesman for Norton said that the department's decisions were properly made, but that she could not respond to questions because the matter is under investigation.
A spokesman for Abramoff, Abbe Lowell, called it "highly ironic" that Abramoff is being questioned for using "every legal and proper method" to protect his client's interests. "The effort to stop the illegal placing of a Jena casino in a position to destroy the economy of Abramoff's tribal client, the Louisiana Coushattas, was extensive and successful," he said.45 Days
When the Jena casino plan was unveiled in January 2002, Abramoff had 45 days to act before the Interior Department completed the legal review called for by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The Coushattas were already one of Abramoff's wealthiest tribal clients. As a lobbyist for the Washington law firm Greenberg Traurig, he had been winning over tribes around the country, preaching that they needed to cultivate the new GOP majority in Washington as well as the Democrats they traditionally supported. Abramoff was among the first to recognize the potential power and largess of the growing, $18.5 billion-a-year Indian gambling business.
Abramoff asked the Coushattas, along with his other tribal clients, to contribute to politicians and conservative groups. On March 22, 2001, according to tribal lawyer David Pore, the Coushattas sent $50,000 to Federici's group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.
CREA describes its mission as promoting "community-based" environmental solutions and "highlighting Republican environmental accomplishments." Some environmental groups contend its purpose is to put a pro-environment gloss on mining and petroleum interests.
Within weeks of the Coushattas' contribution, Federici -- who had worked on Norton's political campaigns in Colorado before she became interior secretary -- sent a note to Norton's scheduler requesting a meeting for the tribe's chairman, Lovelin Poncho. The meeting did not take place.
In July, Abramoff e-mailed a tribal lawyer that he had a call in to "our guy Steve Griles" and, if need be, would try to get Norton to send some "positive signals" to Louisiana's Republican governor about renewing the Coushattas' own gambling contract with the state.
Abramoff said he would proceed carefully, the e-mails obtained by The Post show. His first step would be "a quiet meeting" with Griles. "What we don't want is to have this new administration (which combines a complete lack of order -- since some of their appointees are only now getting into place -- with hostility to gaming in general) to do something which could hurt us. We have our friends inside in powerful positions, and need to make sure they are guiding us."
In September, tribal chairman Poncho finally got his meeting with Norton. Abramoff arranged for him to attend a CREA dinner in Georgetown with the secretary and Griles, records show.
In January 2002, the Coushattas were stunned to learn that after secret talks, then-Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) had agreed that the Jena Band of Choctaws could build a casino in Vinton, close to the Texas state line and an hour from the $300 million-a-year Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder, La. The state was to get 15.5 percent of the profits. The Coushattas already vied for customers with nearby non-Indian riverboat casinos and did not want any more competition.
The Jenas were an impoverished group of about 200 people spread through rural north-central Louisiana. They had won federal recognition as a tribe only in 1995 and had no reservation. Foster said the deal was good for the state.
The prospect of a Jena casino upset not only the Coushattas but also the Mississippi Choctaws, who had their own casino. They, too, were Abramoff clients.
Days after the Jena plan was announced, Abramoff faxed Griles a request for a meeting among Griles, Norton and Choctaw Chief Philip Martin. Griles appeared eager to accommodate him. He jotted a note on the fax and sent it to Norton's secretaries: "I would like 5/10 minute quick drop by photo with Sec. since [the Choctaw chief] missed her at the [September CREA] dinner! . . . Need let Jack know if this can happen!"
The meetings -- one with Norton and a longer one with Griles -- did take place on Feb. 5, 2002, according to Interior records.Christian Coalition
Meanwhile, Abramoff opened a second front to bring outside pressure on Interior against the Jenas.
He looked to Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who operated several consulting companies. Reed has acknowledged receiving as much as $4 million from Abramoff and his associate, Scanlon, to organize grass-roots anti-gambling campaigns in Louisiana and Texas. The money came from casino-rich Indian tribes, including the Coushattas, but Reed said that although he knew of Abramoff's connection to the tribes, he did not know until media accounts surfaced last summer that his fees came from gambling proceeds.
Reed then turned to Dobson to marshal his vast network of evangelicals, Abramoff's e-mails show.
Abramoff wrote to Scanlon in a Feb. 20, 2002, e-mail that Dobson would make radio ads against gambling. Reed "may finally have scored for us! Dobson goes up on the radio on this next week!" He suggested giving Reed $60,000 for the ads to run in Louisiana and Texas. "We'll then play it in the WH [White House] and Interior," he told Scanlon.
The prospect that Dobson would become involved had an immediate impact at Interior. His regular radio show had a huge audience, and his Colorado-based Focus on the Family actively campaigned against gambling as a social evil.
One of Dobson's top aides, Tom Minnery, wrote to Norton saying Louisiana "already has an alarming number of gaming establishments" -- a letter he copied to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. The Interior Department's White House liaison, Doug Domenech, sounded the alarm.
"Doug came to me and said, 'Dobson's going to shut down our phone system. He's going to go on the air and tell everyone who listens to Focus on the Family to call Interior to oppose the Jena compact,' " said a former senior Interior official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Federici, of CREA, stoked the nervousness at Interior. "From what I have been told," she wrote Norton spokesman Eric Ruff in a Feb. 21 memo, Reed "has been bending the ear of Karl Rove and possibly even the President about land-in-trust and gaming issues. I am also hearing that Ralph has involved James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly with this. Supposedly Dobson is planning to run ads and they mention Gale by name."
Federici said she had also heard that conservatives in the House "have been asked to sign a letter to Gale and the President slamming DOI [Department of Interior]."
Federici declined to comment on why she had any involvement with the tribes or the gambling issue. Along with her memo to Ruff, she enclosed without explanation copies of e-mails on the issue that Reed had sent to Abramoff.
There is no evidence that Dobson's group knew of Abramoff's connection to Reed. But Dobson's involvement was discussed at a senior Interior staff meeting and "had its intended effect, which was to get everyone worried," the former senior official said. "Norton didn't want a spectacle involving the department, especially involving gambling."
Norton's predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, had endured a two-year probe by an independent counsel before being cleared of allegations involving an Indian tribe and campaign contributions.
Norton's aides contacted Dobson's group to calm things down, the former official said, and told it that whatever the decision, the Jenas would need to clear more hurdles before opening a casino.Help on the Hill
In addition to the grass-roots pressure on Interior, Abramoff and his lobbying team sought allies on Capitol Hill.
David Vitter, a Republican congressman from Louisiana and longtime gambling foe, wrote a three-page letter in February 2002 to Norton, urging her to reject the Jena compact.
Reed was delighted. He forwarded to Abramoff the details of four telephone calls made by top Vitter supporters to the congressman's staff, lauding his efforts to block the Jenas. "He's feeling the love," Reed wrote in an e-mail to Abramoff.
Reed's Committee Against Gambling Expansion followed up by mailing thousands of postcards to voters praising Vitter. Vitter, who was mulling a run for governor, said he later got the group's permission to use its name in his own phone-banking effort. The gambling furor raised Vitter's political profile, and he went on to win the Senate seat vacated by Democrat John B. Breaux last year.
At the time of the Jena fight, Vitter said, he had no idea that Reed and Abramoff were behind the group or that it was funded with Coushatta casino money. When newspaper stories last summer reported the link, he said, he was "surprised and quite frankly disappointed." Vitter said he never dealt with Abramoff and had met him only once, in passing.
With the March 7 deadline for Interior's decision approaching, Vitter fired off another strong letter to Norton, this one co-signed by 26 House conservatives, as Federici had predicted.
Over the next two weeks, senior members of Congress also weighed in with letters, among them Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, Mississippi Republicans and longtime supporters of the Mississippi Choctaws who received $68,500 and $27,000, respectively, from Abramoff's lobbying team and tribal clients. Breaux, whose legislative aide, Stephanie Leger Short, had just gone to work for Abramoff as a Coushatta lobbyist, sent Norton a stack of anti-Jena constituent mail. Breaux received $14,250 from the lobbyists and their tribal clients.
On March 6, Poncho, the Coushatta chief, approved cutting 61 checks to members of Congress and their political action committees, some for as much as $25,000, according to tribal and federal election records. The list labeled "Coushatta requests" was prepared by Abramoff, according to tribal representatives. One list provided to The Post by tribal council member David Sickey includes a request for $100,000 for CREA and the notation: "Council for Republican Advocacy (Norton)."
One day later, Interior announced its decision on the Jena casino. Assistant Secretary Neal A. McCaleb said that Louisiana's revenue-sharing proposal amounted to an impermissible tax on the tribe. The casino plan was scuttled.Second Chance
But the Jenas were not finished. They and their casino development company hired new lobbyists at Patton Boggs LLP. Soon they had a new proposal for a casino in Logansport, La., in a district represented by Rep. Jim McCrery (R).
The Jenas also hired lobbyist Wallace Henderson, former chief of staff to Breaux and then-Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R). In early 2003, the two lawmakers shocked the Abramoff lobbying team when they offered the Jenas tacit support.
"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.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.