By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 15, 2006
The Post's two-year investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings is one of the best and most explosive pieces of investigative journalism this town has seen in a long time.
The story has moved inexorably from Abramoff being a top dog lobbyist to his pleading guilty to scamming Indian tribes and fraudulently buying a Florida-based fleet of gambling ships. With Abramoff's pleas, some members of Congress look as if they are moving swiftly to enact lobbying reform just ahead of the sheriff.
Susan Schmidt, a Post veteran of 23 years, has been the lead reporter since the story began to unfold in the fall of 2003; she was later joined by R. Jeffrey Smith and James V. Grimaldi. Their work has been supervised by editors on the national and investigative desks.
Schmidt is known at The Post for a remarkable ability to dig and develop broad and deep sources from all sides of a story.
A number of Post reporters -- but not Schmidt -- used Abramoff as a source before the scandal. He was often quoted in stories about Republican politics, fundraising, Jewish causes, the Capital Athletic Foundation he founded and his two restaurants. News reports described him as a "confidant" of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and "influential" among conservative lawmakers.
In the fall of 2003, a lobbyist called to tip Schmidt that Abramoff was raking in millions of dollars from Indian tribes to lobby on gambling casinos. Schmidt started checking Federal Election Commission records for Abramoff's campaign contributions. Lobbyists also file forms with Congress that give information on clients and fees.
Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.
"It was enough to get me interested," Schmidt said. She also came across Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay who operated a public relations firm doing business with tribes.
Schmidt called tribal leaders around the country, looking for Indians who had access to information and were suspicious of Abramoff. Her first big story, on Feb. 22, 2004, revealed that Abramoff and Scanlon had taken an eye-popping $45 million-plus in fees from the tribes.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began a congressional investigation, and the Justice Department started its own probe. Schmidt kept tabs on those, as she had done for six years as the lead reporter on investigations into the Clinton administration, including the Monica Lewinsky case.
One piece of information led to another; Schmidt was often ahead of the investigators. "It was incredibly complicated, an unbelievable, ingenious, enormous web of fragments" around Abramoff's deals, she said. Schmidt had only one interview -- in February 2004 -- with Abramoff. She said he lied about having no financial ties to Scanlon; federal investigators later showed they split fees.
Schmidt asked about the purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a story well known in Florida but not in Washington. "His reaction was so startled, so convulsive, that I knew I was onto something," she said. Schmidt and Grimaldi started looking at Abramoff and his stake in the SunCruz ships that took passengers into international waters to gamble.
Grimaldi and Schmidt spent days in Florida federal courts looking at SunCruz bankruptcy records. Grimaldi came across a bank loan application on which Abramoff listed as references Tony Rudy, then DeLay's deputy chief of staff, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
"The eureka find was that there were congressional links to this fraudulent casino deal. He had been telling local reporters that he had little to do with SunCruz. Yet the evidence was hiding in plain sight in court records," Grimaldi said.
One of the troves that kept the story expanding was Abramoff's e-mails. He was an inveterate e-mailer, and those e-mails found their way to Schmidt.
One other effective approach came from R. Jeffrey Smith, who likes to show up when people don't expect him and ask important questions. "In the stunned first few moments," he said, he often teased information out of people who didn't want to talk.
Sources often know important facts that they don't reveal until they see how the story is going to turn out. When it became clear that Abramoff was going down, people became comfortable talking, Smith said. "You put a crack in the wall, the crack spreads, and, like water, information begins to flow."
Schmidt, Grimaldi and Smith reported on Abramoff's ties to members of Congress and their staffs, whom he lavishly wined and dined, took on expensive foreign trips, and gave skybox seats at local sports events. Smith obtained a travel invoice to Scotland and England for DeLay; the invoice had a credit card number. After aggressively working two sources, Smith found out it was Abramoff's credit card.
Two persistent complaints have come the ombudsman's way on this story. One, from Democrats, is that The Post is trying to distance DeLay from Abramoff because a Dec. 29 story said the two were not personally close. DeLay had once called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends" and said on Fox News recently that they were friends.
Schmidt and Grimaldi said that their reporting showed that the two were politically, not personally, close. Whatever the degree of closeness, the strength of Schmidt's and Grimaldi's reporting has tied the two together inextricably.
The second complaint is from Republicans, who say The Post purposely hasn't nailed any Democrats. Several stories, including one on June 3 by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, a Post business reporter, have mentioned that a number of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), have gotten Abramoff campaign money.
So far, Schmidt and Grimaldi say their reporting on the investigations hasn't put Democrats in the first tier of people being investigated.
But stay tuned. This story is nowhere near over.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.