By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005
What a difference the passage of a few years has made for high-powered Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In the first nine months of 2002, Abramoff collected $12.2 million in fees from Indian tribes and additional sums from the General Council for Islamic Banks and other clients. He spent $232,000 on his personal travel, mostly by chartered jets, and $69,000 for a Passover family vacation.
As a Bush "Pioneer," Abramoff also raised more than $100,000 for the president's reelection in 2004. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was "a very close friend," according to Abramoff's description, as well as a participant in costly trips to Moscow and Scotland arranged and partly subsidized by Abramoff or his clients.
Abramoff played host to other lawmakers and congressional staff members at four luxury sports-stadium skyboxes he leased for $1 million a year, and he provided free fundraisers for lawmakers at Signatures, a Washington restaurant in which he had a financial stake.
Now the restaurant is sold, the clients are gone, the lawmakers are working to distance themselves, and Abramoff's wealth is being diverted to pay his legal tab. His indictment yesterday by a Florida grand jury, which covers only a sliver of the activities targeted in a continuing federal tax and corruption investigation, officially caps his remarkably swift fall from grace but is probably not the end of his travails. He was to spend last night in jail.
The saga of Abramoff's career is the tale of an ideologically committed lawyer whose financial ambitions repeatedly pushed him toward the boundaries of legal and ethical propriety. A short man with a strong chin who wore dark suits and flaunted his religious faith, Abramoff has repeatedly said that what he did was no different from what other lobbyists did for their Washington clients. He said they all got good value for their money, and also that he broke no laws.
He was not bashful about seeking personal enrichment. "Can you smell money?" Abramoff wrote his partner in 2001, referring to a Michigan Indian tribe flush with profits from casino gambling.
Abramoff got his start in politics as an organizer for Ronald Reagan while attending Brandeis University in 1980. Shortly afterward, he made his first connections to others who would command influence in Washington when he became the head of the College Republican National Committee in 1981. One of his predecessors was Karl Rove, and three of his colleagues in the group at the time -- Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and Amy Ridenour -- would later play helpful roles in Abramoff's Washington work.
He signed on as a lobbyist in Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, the Washington office of a Seattle-based firm. One of his first tasks was to help textile manufacturers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands -- a U.S. protectorate -- preserve the islands' exemption from minimum-wage laws.
Abramoff sold the exemption to DeLay and many other lawmakers, whom he took on junkets to the islands, as the key to preserving a model of conservative, regulation-free capitalism. Critics, including international human rights groups and Democrats, said his lobbying helped insulate and preserve the abusive workplace and labor conditions there.
Abramoff later signed on as a lobbyist to Indian tribes, flush with millions of dollars from gambling operations, that wanted to preserve their exemption from taxation. With partner Michael Scanlon, a former press secretary of DeLay, Abramoff collected at least $66 million from six tribes between 2001 and 2003, according to a year-long and continuing investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He also steered Indian riches into the coffers of numerous politicians, including a few Democrats, as well as influential Republicans.
Abramoff's personal lifestyle matched his lavish fees. A detailed tally by his accountant, released in June by the committee, included expenditures in the first nine months of 1992 of $134,000 for a new BMW, $69,000 for his driver's salary, $103,000 in credit card charges, and $36,000 in fees to accountants and other personal advisers. He also wrote checks to lawmakers' campaigns totaling $28,000 in that period.
But as Abramoff strategized and moved his clients' funds around -- in what his former colleagues and associates have described as a lengthy effort to obscure who was paying for what and where the money wound up -- he also left a trail of thousands of e-mails and other documents recounting the maneuvers in exceptionally brash terms.
Those documents, in the hands of federal and congressional investigators since early last year, are providing the grist for the legal challenges Abramoff and his former associates still face.
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.