By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Derek Willis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 3, 2005
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an associate famously collected $82 million in lobbying and public relations fees from six Indian tribes and devoted a lot of their time to trying to persuade Republican lawmakers to act on their clients' behalf.
But Abramoff didn't work just with Republicans. He oversaw a team of two dozen lobbyists at the law firm Greenberg Traurig that included many Democrats. Moreover, the campaign contributions that Abramoff directed from the tribes went to Democratic as well as Republican legislators.
Among the biggest beneficiaries were Capitol Hill's most powerful Democrats, including Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the top two Senate Democrats at the time, Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), then-leader of the House Democrats, and the two lawmakers in charge of raising funds for their Democratic colleagues in both chambers, according to a Washington Post study. Reid succeeded Daschle as Democratic leader after Daschle lost his Senate seat last November.
Democrats are hoping to gain political advantage from federal and Senate investigations of Abramoff's activities and from the embattled lobbyist's former ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Yet, many Democratic lawmakers also benefited from Abramoff's political operation, a fact that could hinder the Democrats' efforts to turn the lobbyist's troubles into a winning partisan issue.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see the Abramoff controversy impact both parties," said Tony Raymond, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine.com, which gathers lobbying and campaign finance information.
Democratic lawmakers who responded to inquiries for this article said that any money they received from the tribes had nothing to do with Abramoff. They were quick to say they did not know the man.
Federal investigators are examining the millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees that Abramoff received from the tribes. They are also looking into his dealings with members of Congress and their staffs, lawyers involved in the inquiry said.
Most lobbying firms here are bipartisan, to give their clients access to key lawmakers of both major parties. Abramoff's group was no exception. Although he was recognized as a Republican lobbyist who was close to DeLay and other party leaders, Abramoff was careful to add at least two Democratic lobbyists to his group during his five years at Greenberg Traurig. By the end, seven of his lobbyists were Democrats.
"Lobbying shops typically direct contributions to both parties because they want contacts on both sides of the aisle," said David M. Hart, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "Lawmakers in the minority can also have a lot of clout."
According to documents and tribal officials familiar with the Abramoff team's methods, the lobbyists devised lengthy lists of lawmakers to whom the tribes should donate and then delivered the lists to the tribes. The tribes, in turn, wrote checks to the recommended campaign committees and in the amounts the lobbyists prescribed. The money went to incumbents or selected candidates in open seats.
Because of the makeup of his team and the composition of Congress, the Abramoff lobbyists channeled most of their clients' giving to GOP legislators, according to a review of public records. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that frequently deals with Indian matters, received the largest amount from the tribes as well as from the Greenberg Traurig lobbyists who helped direct those donations: $141,590 from 1999 to 2004, the study showed.
But Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) ran second, with $128,000 in the same period. From 1999 to 2001, Kennedy chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which solicited campaign donations for House candidates.
The Indians' largess flowed to higher-ranking Democrats as well. Senate Democratic leaders Reid and Daschle each received more than $40,000 from the tribes and from lobbyists on Abramoff's team during the period. Gephardt got $32,500.
Of the 18 largest recipients of tribe contributions directed by Abramoff's group, six, or one-third, were Democrats. These included Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2001 to 2002, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), a leader in Indian affairs legislation.
Over that period, while Abramoff and his lobbyists directed nearly $4 million in funds from the tribes to lawmakers, they also gave from their own pockets. Two-thirds of the total went to Republicans and one-third was handed out to Democrats, according to The Post's calculations.
The six wealthiest tribes that had hired Abramoff's group were the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and the Tigua Indian Reservation.
Greenberg Traurig declined to comment. An Abramoff spokesman said: "Each tribe has its own protocol for approving political contributions made by the tribe. Mr. Abramoff and his team provided recommendations on where a tribe should spend its political dollars, but ultimately the tribal council made the final decision on what political contributions to make."
Democratic lawmakers sought to distance themselves from Abramoff.
A spokesman for Kennedy said the congressman's donations from the tribes "have nothing to do with Abramoff." Kennedy traces the money's genesis to his family's long-standing commitment to Indian causes, to the fact that he co-founded the Congressional Native American Caucus in 1997, and to his personal relationship with Mississippi Choctaw Chief Philip Martin, whom Kennedy met in 1999 on a fundraising trip for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They just became close friends," said Kennedy spokesman Sean Richardson.
James Patrick Manley, Reid's spokesman, also asserted that Reid's connection to tribes was remote from Abramoff. He said that Reid does not know Abramoff. But Abramoff did hire as one of his lobbyists Edward P. Ayoob, a veteran Reid legislative aide. Manley acknowledged that Ayoob helped raise campaign money for his former boss. Lawyers close to the Abramoff operation said that Ayoob held a fundraising reception for Reid at Greenberg Traurig's offices here.
"There's nothing sinister here," Manley said. Reid is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee with strong relations with Indian tribes, he explained.
Daschle was familiar with another of Abramoff's Democratic lobbyists, Michael Smith. According to Steve Hildebrand, who was Daschle's campaign manager last year, Smith "helped with a lot of Democratic campaigns." In addition, Daschle was a favorite of Indian tribes and received donations from 64, including five Abramoff clients. "We took about $150,000 in this last election cycle from Indian tribes around the country," Hildebrand said. "Tom is viewed as a champion of Indian issues. We have nine tribes in South Dakota, and they worked hard for him."
Murray also was said to have never laid eyes on Abramoff. "Our office has not had any contact with Jack Abramoff," said the senator's spokeswoman, Alex Glass. "She's been active in Indian health care and in supporting their sovereign governments; that is why they decided to contribute to her. They see her as an advocate."
During the time Murray chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Abramoff's major tribes were significant contributors. Election reports show that the grand total from the tribes to that committee in 2001-2002 reached $175,500.
In March 2001, Dorgan held a fundraising event during a hockey game in a skybox leased by an Abramoff company at MCI Center. But the senator said he believed that the box was controlled by Greenberg Traurig. The event was organized by Smith, the Democratic fundraiser, he added.
"I was unaware that Abramoff was involved," Dorgan said.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.