Abramoff Cited Aid Of Interior Official

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted Aug. 11 in Fort Lauderdale on wire fraud counts involving gambling boats.
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted Aug. 11 in Fort Lauderdale on wire fraud counts involving gambling boats. (By Carlos Barria -- Reuters)
By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff claimed in e-mails sent in 2002 that the deputy secretary of the interior had pledged to block an Indian casino that would compete with one of the lobbyist's tribal clients. Abramoff later told two associates that he was trying to hire the official.

A federal task force investigating Abramoff's activities has conducted interviews and obtained documents from Interior Department officials and Abramoff associates to determine whether conflict-of-interest laws were violated, according to people with knowledge of the probe. It can be a federal crime for government officials to negotiate for a job while being involved in decisions affecting the potential employer.

The two former Abramoff associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are under scrutiny in the investigation, said Abramoff told them in late 2003 that he was trying to arrange for his firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, to hire J. Steven Griles, then deputy interior secretary. Federal investigators are interested in those discussions and in job negotiations Abramoff may have had with a second department official, according to sources.

Abramoff told associates that he believed Griles was "committed" to blocking an effort by the Gun Lake Indian tribe to build a casino near Grand Rapids, Mich., according to the content of e-mail messages reviewed by The Washington Post. Abramoff said the blocking would involve an environmental challenge to the project, a tactic also proposed by Michigan business leaders opposed to the casino. Abramoff fought the project because it would draw business from a casino operated by his clients, the Saginaw Chippewas.

Environmental concerns ended up delaying action on the Gun Lake casino. The project was cleared last May by the Interior Department.

Gun Lake was not the only casino that Abramoff tried to derail through his departmental contacts. The Post has reported on e-mails indicating the lobbyist enlisted Griles to stop a Louisiana tribe's proposed casino, which threatened another Abramoff client.

Griles, who left the Interior Department earlier this year to form a consulting firm, "said he never had anything to do with the Gun Lake casino issues," a spokeswoman at his company said. He did not comment on any job discussions with Abramoff. A spokesman for Abramoff also declined to comment. Greenberg Traurig, citing the ongoing investigation, had no comment on possible job talks with department officials.

In a separate case, Abramoff and a business partner were indicted this month on federal wire fraud and conspiracy charges in Florida. They are accused of providing lenders with a counterfeit financial document to consummate their purchase of a casino cruise line in 2000. Allegations of fraud emerged after the seller was later killed in a gangland-style hit.

The Washington probe, being conducted by the Justice Department's fraud and public corruption unit, focuses on Abramoff's lobbying work on Capitol Hill for Indian tribes for which he and public relations executive Michael Scanlon were paid $82 million. Scanlon, one of about a dozen congressional staffers who went to work with Abramoff, had served as press spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

The Justice Department task force, which includes the FBI and the IRS, is looking into Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers and their staffs. Investigators from the Interior Department's inspector general's office, part of the task force, have been asking witnesses about the Gun Lake casino project, according to people who have had contact with the investigators.

The task force also is examining Abramoff's relationships and influence with officials of the Bush administration, as highlighted by the previously undisclosed Gun Lake e-mails. The e-mails show how Abramoff relied on the president of a conservative group, Italia Federici, to intercede with Griles, who was her friend.

Copies of Abramoff's e-mails referencing Griles and Federici were obtained from a variety of sources, including the Interior Department. Some e-mails involving Gun Lake were read to The Post by a person who declined to release them because of the federal probe.

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