By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 23, 2005
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff used money from a Mississippi tribal client to set up bogus Christian anti-gambling groups and to fund pet projects including gear for a "sniper school" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to documents released yesterday by Senate investigators.
The revelations came in e-mails and testimony made public yesterday by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at its third hearing on the activities of Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a public relations executive and former spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Abramoff, who is also at the center of a corruption investigation by the Justice Department, laundered tribal money by directing the Indians to donate to tax-exempt groups that the lobbyist later used for his own purposes, the Senate committee said. One project involved Abramoff's effort to arrange for military equipment, including night-vision goggles and a "jeep," for the sniper training conducted by a high school friend.
Aaron Stetter, a former Scanlon employee, testified that Scanlon and Abramoff sought to whip up opposition to casinos proposed by rival tribes by setting up bogus Christian phone banks. He said callers would identify themselves as members of groups such as the Christian Research Network or Global Christian Outreach Network and urge voters to contact their representatives.
Material released yesterday also appeared to undermine assertions by former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, now a candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor.
Reed has acknowledged receiving $4 million from Abramoff and Scanlon to run anti-gambling campaigns in the South. Reed has said he did not know where the funds were coming from, but e-mails suggest that he was aware that some of the money he was getting came from the casino-rich Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Other e-mails presented at the hearing -- obtained from Abramoff's former law firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP -- showed that Abramoff and his lobbying team discussed how they would "pump up" their bills and expense accounts to the Choctaws by tens of thousands of dollars a month, raising new questions about the law firm's failure to rein in the lobbyists.
The committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said investigators had uncovered possible mail and wire fraud that should be pursued by the Justice Department, as well as tax issues that would be of concern to the Internal Revenue Service. The Justice Department already is looking into more than $82 million in lobbying and public relations fees Abramoff and Scanlon received from tribes around the country.
Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin did not testify, but he said in a statement that "we were astounded that a senior director at a major law firm would or could engage in misconduct of this sort . . . and that he was able to get away with it for so long."
Donald Kilgore, attorney general of the Choctaw tribe, said the firm's lobbyists engaged in "a blatant, calculated scheme to defraud a client." He said records and e-mails the tribe has reviewed show a series of kickbacks, misappropriated funds and unauthorized charges. "Mr. Abramoff consistently directed that the bills be padded and pumped up," Kilgore said.
Greenberg spokeswoman Jill Perry said that when the firm learned of Abramoff's activities more than a year ago, it demanded his resignation. "We share others' outrage at this misconduct, which is antithetical to our firm's culture and values," Perry said.
A spokesman for Abramoff said that "any fair reading of Mr. Abramoff's career" would show that he was an effective lobbyist for his clients.
"Mr. Abramoff is put into the impossible position of not being able to defend himself in the public arena until the proper authorities have had a chance to review all accusations," said the spokesman, Andrew Blum.
Three former associates of Abramoff and Scanlon who were summoned to testify declined to do so, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. They included former Greenberg lobbyist Kevin Ring, who continues to represent the Choctaw tribe as a lobbyist, and Shawn Vasell, who like Ring was a congressional aide before joining Abramoff's lobbying team.
A third former associate, Brian Mann, was a director of the American International Center, a foundation set up by Scanlon in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Money from tribes and other clients passed through the AIC and was paid to Reed as well as to Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig.
Mann, a yoga instructor, was a director of the AIC, along with former lifeguard Brian Grosh, a longtime beach buddy of Scanlon's. The AIC described itself on its Web site as "a premiere international think tank," that was "determined to influence global paradigms in an increasingly complex world."
Grosh told the panel that Scanlon asked him to serve as a director of the AIC and paid him $2,500. "I'm embarrassed and disgusted to be part of this whole thing," he testified, saying he did not know much about the AIC's financial activities.
Asked about the e-mails released yesterday, Reed reiterated in an interview that the money he received for his anti-gambling activities did not come from gambling proceeds. He said that he has always acknowledged receiving money from the Choctaws but asked the tribe to assure him that the funds sent to him would not come from the casino.
"The assurance I sought was that the money did not come from gambling activity," Reed said. "And that assurance was honored."
In September, however, Reed's office provided a different explanation. "We knew that Greenberg Traurig was recruiting coalition members [for the anti-gambling effort] and raising funds as well, but we had no direct knowledge of their clients or interests," the office said in a statement. "At no time were we retained by nor did we represent any casino or casino company."
E-mails released yesterday indicated that Reed did know the name of the client. OnApril 4, 1999, Abramoff told Reed to put together a cost plan for the campaign, "including a total budget figure with category breakdowns." He added: "Once I get this I will call Nell at Choctaw and get it approved."
In subsequent e-mails, Abramoff and Reed discuss how Reed would be reimbursed by the Choctaws through Abramoff's firm, and Americans for Tax Reform, a group founded by conservative activist Grover Norquist.
Yesterday, Reed's office said his comments yesterday and the September statement were not inconsistent.
The "Nell" referred to in the April 4 e-mail is Nell Rogers, who had been the Choctaws' main contact with Abramoff. Called to testify yesterday, she told the committee the tribe knew that Abramoff and Scanlon were using "intermediaries" such as the American International Center to pay for the anti-gambling campaigns.
"I am sure there probably were concerns -- or public perception concerns -- about some of the recipients, about not being associated with a tribe or with a gaming tribe," she said.
Abramoff, Norquist and Reed have been political allies since their days as leaders of the College Republicans. Reed and Abramoff appear to have set up a business arrangement as Reed wound down from the 1998 election cycle. Responding to a query from Abramoff about how candidates he supported had done, Reed wrote: "Hey, now that I'm done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts."
The Choctaws, the richest and most successful gambling tribe in the country, initially defended Abramoff when his activities first drew scrutiny over a year ago. But they began cooperating with government investigators last summer after being told by Greenberg Traurig that its internal investigation had found fraud in the lobbyist's work for the tribe.
Yesterday, McCain said the committee had found that Abramoff and Scanlon had pocketed $6.5 million of the $7.7 million in consulting fees they received from the Choctaws. McCain said that Abramoff had directed the Choctaws to hire Scanlon for consulting work, but never revealed to the tribe that they had a secret partnership, which they called "gimme five," according to the e-mails.
Whenever Scanlon pitched his services to a client, Abramoff would remind him of their extra profits. On Aug. 16, 2001, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, "Don't forget the gimme five aspects." On Oct. 17, 2001, Abramoff wrote, "So there is more gimme five coming on all these as well, right?"
Said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.): " 'Gimme five' means 'I'll take a cut of this.' " "I'm past anger and bitterness," Rogers, the Choctaw official who had worked most closely with Abramoff, told the committee. "It is an extraordinary story of betrayal."