By Peter Baker and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 7, 2006
A top aide to White House strategist Karl Rove resigned yesterday after disclosures that she accepted gifts from and passed information to now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, becoming the first official in the West Wing to lose a job in the influence-peddling scandal.
Susan B. Ralston submitted her resignation to avoid causing political damage to President Bush a month before the midterm elections, officials said. "She did not want to be a distraction to the White House at this important time," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
A congressional report showed last week that Ralston accepted sometimes-pricey tickets to nine sports and entertainment events from Abramoff while she provided him with inside White House information. The bipartisan report said there is no evidence that Rove knew of or approved of Ralston's actions, and sources said yesterday that the White House was surprised by the report's revelations.
The White House counsel's office conducted a review of the report, but with Ralston's departure it closed its inquiry yesterday. "Nothing more will come from the report, no further fallout from the report," Perino said.
A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the counsel's office reached no conclusion about whether Ralston violated gift limits because her resignation made the point moot. But the official said there were "mitigating circumstances" in her case because she had a preexisting relationship with Abramoff, for whom she worked before joining the White House. The official said the White House made no criminal referral in her case. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The sprawling Abramoff investigations have triggered prosecutions on Capitol Hill and on K Street, but Ralston's resignation brought the scandal into the White House proper. The only other White House official caught up in the probe has been David H. Safavian, the procurement chief for the Office of Management and Budget, who was convicted in June of lying about his ties to Abramoff.
As right hand to the president's most important adviser, Ralston was closer to the center of the Bush operation. She was a key organizer of presidential events, coordinating with White House political, scheduling, advance and public liaison offices. "She will be missed because she solves problems, and finding people in government who solve problems" is rare, a colleague said.
Ralston, who earned $122,000 a year, had been a minor player in the scandal for more than a year, but it was not until her e-mails with the lobbyist were released by the House Government Reform Committee last week that her role became known.
The information supplied by Ralston to Abramoff often involved procedural matters, social events and possible administration appointments, the committee said.
Rules ban White House officials from accepting gifts worth more than $20 from anyone doing business with the government. Exceptions can be made for preexisting relationships, although ethics officers generally advise officials to avoid anything that might be misinterpreted.
Rove has been out of town all week and declined to comment yesterday. A colleague said that neither Rove nor anyone else at the White House pushed Ralston to leave. Ralston did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages yesterday, and her attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, declined to comment.
In a letter to the president dated Thursday, Ralston wrote: "It has been a tremendous privilege to work at the White House and now after almost six years the time has come for me to pursue other opportunities." The White House did not announce the resignation until Friday afternoon, timing that is often used to minimize bad news.
"She leaves without any animosity from us," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. "She's been a tireless worker for the president, and we will be sad to see her leave."
As a former Abramoff assistant, Ralston played intermediary between the lobbyist and Rove. The congressional report found 66 Abramoff contacts with the White House, more than half of them with Ralston. In addition, Abramoff's lobbying colleagues contacted Ralston 69 times.
On Oct. 21, 2001, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff that Rove had read an Abramoff memo about a political endorsement in the Mariana Islands governor's race, a little-noticed election but one important to Abramoff because he had lucrative clients there. Ralston reported to Abramoff that Rove had agreed, writing the next day: "You win :)."
More often, Abramoff fell short at the White House. Abramoff contacted Ralston to get Rove to place a close ally, Mark Zachares, as head of the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs. Ralston rebuffed a meeting with Rove for Zachares, saying it was unnecessary because Rove was on their side. But Zachares did not get the position.
In November and December 2003, Abramoff e-mailed Ralston about Iraqi bonds apparently issued by one of his clients, American Bondholders Foundation, the House committee said. In response, Ralston indicated that the National Security Council had not "gotten back to me yet." Six days later, she had an answer. "The NSC is very suspect of this proposal," she wrote. "The White House will not support it."
Ralston helped Rove get tickets from Abramoff for a game in the NCAA basketball tournament but told Abramoff that "Karl has to pay for his tickets." The White House said last week that Rove paid for his tickets. But Ralston apparently did not pay for tickets she accepted to Bruce Springsteen and Andrea Bocelli concerts and Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Baltimore Orioles games.
"Are floor seats available," Ralston asked in December 2001 for four Wizards tickets worth a combined $1,300, the report said.
"For you? Anything!" Abramoff replied. "How many do you need?"
"You got 'em," Abramoff said. "I'll organize."