By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 23, 2005
Yesterday's Senate hearing into superlobbyist Jack Abramoff's alleged defrauding of Indian tribes had something for everyone. There was the yoga instructor who took the Fifth. There was the lifeguard selected to run a think tank from a beach house at Rehoboth. And there was Exhibit 31, an e-mail from Abramoff to a rabbi friend.
"I hate to ask you for your help with something so silly but I've been nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, which is a very distinguished club in Washington, DC, comprised of Nobel Prize winners, etc.," Abramoff wrote. "Problem for me is that most prospective members have received awards and I have received none. I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies?"
There were titters in the audience as Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) read aloud the e-mail, then outright laughter as he continued reading: "Indeed, it would be even better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean."
The rabbi, conservative radio host Daniel Lapin, gave his blessing. "I just need to know what needs to be produced," he wrote. "Letters? Plaques?"
"The point of all of this," Dorgan said, "is there's a lot of deception going on."
In three hours yesterday, Dorgan and John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, quizzed witnesses on what the lawmakers described as an elaborate web of fraud and greed -- "even by Washington standards," as Dorgan unkindly put it.
There were phony grass-roots Christian groups. Phony billing statements. Nonprofits with phony purposes. And, perhaps phoniest of all, a "premiere international think tank" called the American International Center, directed by two boyhood friends of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon: yoga instructor Brian Mann and lifeguard-cum-excavator David Grosh. Mann refused to answer questions, but Grosh, who never consulted a lawyer, was happy to tell his story.
"I'm embarrassed and disgusted to be a part of this whole thing," Grosh said in his two-sentence statement. "The Lakota Indians have a word, wasichu , which aptly describes all of us right now."
Grosh didn't say what wasichu means (literally, "he who steals the fat"), and McCain, not being fluent in Lakota, merely thanked Grosh and read from the think tank's self-described mission of "bringing great minds together from all over the globe" under the "high power directorship" of Mann and Grosh -- who now does construction work and tends bar.
Grosh, with tousled hair and long sideburns, told about a call from Scanlon asking, "Do you want to be head of an international corporation?" That, Grosh added, was "a hard one to turn down." The lifeguard/excavator/bartender had the gallery in stitches, and he wasn't finished. "I asked him what I had to do, and he said 'Nothing.' So that sounded pretty good to me."
McCain asked if the think tank had any board meetings. "I recall one," the witness replied.
"And how long did that last?"
"Fifteen minutes," Grosh estimated.
"Do you recall any business that was discussed . . .?"
"Off the top of my head, no."
The hapless Grosh said he received no more than $2,500 for his troubles, and tickets to a hockey game. "I got out of it when I found out it involved the federal government, Indian tribes and gambling," he said. "I knew that it was headed down the wrong way."
The honest lifeguard declined a lifeline from the chairman, who said he was clearly "used" by Scanlon and didn't do anything wrong himself. "I'm an adult," the lawyerless Grosh insisted. "He didn't use me."
There were weightier witnesses: the leaders of the Choctaw tribe who were Abramoff's alleged victims, the pair of former Abramoff associates who sheepishly took the Fifth, and the accountant and nonprofit leader who were portrayed as naive about Abramoff, or worse.
There were also the ghosts in the room: Republican activists Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist (who appeared often in Abramoff's correspondence but who weren't the focus of yesterday's inquiry) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a friend of Abramoff's referred to elliptically as an unnamed "member of Congress."
But Grosh, dressed in shirtsleeves and black jeans, was the star. When the hearing ended, reporters swarmed around him, asking why he did it. "It was wintertime in Rehoboth," he explained. "You need to make rent money."
Lately, Grosh has been occupied with calls from the FBI and reporters, and then the call to testify -- an experience he described as surreal.
"It's gonna get worse," cautioned one of his interviewers.
"Oh, great," he muttered.
"Speaking of that," a television producer called out, "want to come and talk to our cameras?"
Grosh warily agreed, blinking into the stage lights and telling his story again. Then he went downstairs and, finally alone, pulled off his necktie and stuffed it into his back pocket.