Don't Bet on Coincidence

Friday, November 18, 2005

WASHINGTON, it seems, is a city of coincidences.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert

(R-Ill.) held a fundraiser at lobbyist Jack Abramoff's restaurant on June 3, 2003. His political action committee, Keep Our Majority, took in at least $21,500 from Mr. Abramoff's law firm and Mr. Abramoff's Indian tribal clients.

One week later the speaker and his three top deputies wrote Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, urging her to reject a request for a new casino from the Jena tribe of Choctaw Indians. As it happened, the Louisiana Coushatta and Mississippi Choctaw, two of Mr. Abramoff's biggest tribal clients, were furiously working to block the casino.

To hear Mr. Hastert's office tell it, the checks had nothing to do with the letter. "We've always opposed these things, in our back yard, in our state, someplace else," Michael Stokke, Mr. Hastert's deputy chief of staff, told the Associated Press. In all, Mr. Hastert received more than $100,000 in donations from Mr. Abramoff's firm and tribal clients from 2001 to 2004.

On the Senate side, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), now the Senate minority leader, also wrote Ms. Norton in opposition to the casino. The letter was dated March 5, 2002. On March 6, 2002, one of Mr. Abramoff's tribal clients wrote a $5,000 check to Mr. Reid's Searchlight Leadership Fund. "There is absolutely no connection between the letter and the fundraising," said Mr. Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. Another coincidence! Mr. Reid's Abramoff-related total: $66,000 between 2001 and 2004.

And so it goes, according to an account by Associated Press reporters John Solomon and Sharon Theimer. They reveal that nearly three dozen members of Congress pressed to block the Jena casino as they harvested checks from rival tribes and from Mr. Abramoff.

The lawmakers insist they were motivated not by the contributions but by their righteous opposition to expanding Indian casino operations. Somehow, though, that distaste didn't stop them from scooping up contributions from gambling tribes. Of 27 lawmakers who signed a joint letter to Ms. Norton urging rejection of the casino because of the "societal damage" of gambling, all but eight received Abramoff-related donations or used his restaurant as a fundraising venue. For example, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) received $5,500 from casino-operating tribes represented by Mr. Abramoff a month after signing the letter; Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) got $1,000 from Mr. Abramoff several weeks before signing the letter and $16,000 from casino tribes two months later.

An environment that requires politicians to raise money to finance their campaigns inevitably raises questions about the influence wielded by donors. But the close proximity in time between the writing of the checks and the sending of the letters, the intrusion into executive branch decision making and the flimsiness of any policy explanation for the involvement of many of these legislators presents a particularly odiferous instance of the ways in which money talks in Washington. Unless, that is, you believe it's all a coincidence.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company