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.
Department officials said the Gun Lake process was proper, adding that they could not comment further because of the ongoing investigation into Abramoff's contacts with Interior.'The Way to Stop It'
The Gun Lake tribe, formally known as the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, in 2001 began seeking approval for a casino on 147 acres near Grand Rapids.
As part of its application, the tribe prepared an environmental assessment and was close to approval by the end of 2002. The tribe was not asked to produce an environmental impact statement, or EIS, a much more detailed study.
On Dec. 4, 2002, Abramoff received an e-mail from Saginaw Chippewas tribal representative Chris Petras, who said that Gun Lake's proposal was moving forward rapidly. A public comment period on the tribe's environmental assessment was expected to be the last step before the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- a part of the Interior Department -- cleared the way.
That same day, Abramoff sent an urgent e-mail to Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.
"This is a disaster in the making," Abramoff wrote. "This is the casino we discussed with Steve and he said that it would not happen. It seems to be happening! The way to stop it is for Interior to say they are not satisfied with the environmental impact report. Can you get him to stop this one asap? They are moving fast. Thanks Italia. This is a direct assault on our guys, Saginaw Chippewa."
Federici posted a quick reply: "I will call him asap." She met with Griles in his office two days later, according to a copy of Griles's schedule released under the Freedom of Information Act. Federici did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Federici's group, CREA, was founded in the 1990s by conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Gale Norton, now secretary of the interior. It has received financial backing from chemical and mining interests, leading some environmentalists to brand it a front for industrial polluters. Abramoff directed tribes he represented to donate $225,000 to CREA from 2001 to 2003.
Days after he appealed to Federici for help with Griles, Abramoff reassured the Saginaw Chippewas tribal representative. "The meeting with Griles went well. We have a lot to do but we'll get there," he told Petras in a Dec. 12, 2002, e-mail.
Scanlon weighed in the following week, suggesting technical roadblocks to stop the casino. "Hey, I think a real quick way to blow this Gun Lake thing out of the water is to have BIA reject the land into trust, or lay some stipulation on their application that would buy us some time," Scanlon wrote Abramoff on Dec. 16. "Any word from Griles on this?"
Abramoff wrote back: "I thought the way to do this is to have them reject the EIS, which I believe Griles has committed to do."
In the first half of 2003, the Gun Lake tribe remained under the impression that its application was about to be approved. But in July of that year, the Department of Justice's Indian law section raised concerns about the project and sought to have the tribe prepare an environment impact statement.
Federal investigators are examining the circumstances that led the section to raise its objections, according to people who have been interviewed in the probe.
Thomas L. Sansonetti, then the associate attorney general overseeing the Indian law section, told Interior Department officials that his office did not want to take on the burden of defending the department if it was sued by Michigan opponents of Gun Lake on environmental grounds.
In an interview this month, Sansonetti said that he wanted to have a strong defense in the event of a lawsuit. He said he was not moved by the Gun Lake tribe's offer to provide legal assistance for any court case.
Sansonetti said he first heard about Gun Lake from the Interior Department's solicitor's office. "I think there was a concern with the [environmental assessment] being sufficient all along," he said.
Sansonetti said he has attended events sponsored by Federici's group. He said he had no communication with Griles or Abramoff about Gun Lake and said he is unaware of any investigation of the matter. He left the Justice Department this year to join a Wyoming law firm.
Asked to comment on how his tribe's application was handled, Gun Lake leader D.K. Sprague issued a statement complaining of the cost of the delay in the casino application and urging "a thorough investigation" by the Justice Department task force. "We have been denied our federal rights, economic self-sufficiency, and jobs that will benefit our community," he said.Opponents Sue Interior
In addition to Gun Lake, in 2003 Abramoff and Griles were active in an effort to stop a casino proposed by the Jena Band of Choctaws in Louisiana, rivals of another Abramoff client.
Late in that year, Griles, who was generally not involved in Indian issues, presented Interior officials with a binder containing legal arguments and congressional letters opposing the Jena plan. Griles acknowledged to colleagues that the binder had probably been put together by Abramoff, according to one former senior department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In March, The Post reported that Griles's involvement in the Jena case led to a clash with other Interior Department officials, including former legal counsel Michael G. Rossetti. A spokeswoman for Griles commented for that article, saying that he "didn't participate in any decision-making process regarding the Jena Band and gaming."
In April, the Interior Department solicitor's office dropped opposition to the Gun Lake tribe's casino application. The tribe subsequently received approval for its casino.
A group of Grand Rapids business leaders, who had long argued that the casino would harm the city's renewal plans and should undergo a more extensive environmental review, immediately sued the Interior Department.
One of those involved in the legal action was Peter F. Secchia, a major GOP fundraiser who served as an ambassador for President George H.W. Bush. In December 2002, he told the Kalamazoo Gazette that he was going all-out to block the casino, so much so that he spoke to presidential political adviser Karl Rove about it at a White House Christmas party for donors.
"I talked to Rove, and he put me in touch with his guy in charge of this kind of operation. I'm going to do my damnedest on this one. This is really important to us," Secchia told the Gazette that December.
In a recent interview, Secchia said he has spoken not only to Rove but also to President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney about what he sees as the negative impact of the proliferation of tribal casinos. Both men, he said, told him it was a legislative issue. "Karl told me to talk to [congressional] committee people," he said, and put him in touch with the White House office of intergovernmental relations.
Secchia said he has not talked to officials at Interior or Justice about Gun Lake. He said he has never had contact with Abramoff, who is out on $2.25 million bond and is to be arraigned next week in Miami in the casino fleet case.