By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
These days he makes no more than 40 cents an hour for his labors at the federal prison camp at Cumberland, Md. But Christmas 2001 was a far more high-flying holiday for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who then was paid as much as $500 an hour.
Back then -- before he pleaded guilty to defrauding banks in a deal to buy a casino cruise line -- Abramoff was a top rainmaker at Greenberg Traurig's Washington office and liked to be generous at this time of year, at least to those who could help him. He compiled a list of 45 people to whom his staff was supposed to send gifts such as a Baccarat crystal bowl and a platinum Tiffany clock.
A copy of his holiday gift list, obtained by The Washington Post, details one of the methods that Washington lobbyists can use to flatter clients and lawmakers. It shows that those who had helped enrich Abramoff got a reward, and his father and brother and their wives got either cookies or a fruit basket.
Three members of Congress and one staff member were among his intended gift recipients, according to the list. Three of them received a more lavish item than House ethics rules allowed, if Abramoff's assistants followed his instructions.
Then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was listed as the intended recipient of a $250 box of Godiva chocolates; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was to receive a $100 gift basket from Harry and David; and Susan Hirschmann, DeLay's chief of staff, was to get a Godiva box worth $100. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) was to get a less valuable gift: some Jerry Seinfeld CDs.
All four were close to Abramoff and his clients. DeLay, for example, had traveled the previous year to a Scottish golf course and a posh London hotel on Abramoff's credit card; he also voted against legislation opposed by two Abramoff clients that helped underwrite that trip. In 2000, Abramoff listed Rohrabacher in bank documents as a personal reference for his casino-boat purchase.
Doolittle endorsed a politician in the Northern Mariana Islands who helped hire Abramoff as a lobbyist; Doolittle's wife, Julie, was hired by Abramoff's lobbying firm in 2002. Hirschmann worked with Abramoff's office to arrange the golf trip, and Abramoff's credit card was used to pay her husband's plane fare.
Ethics rules have long barred House members and staff from receiving gifts from registered lobbyists separately worth more than $50. Reached by phone, DeLay said, "I don't think I got a box of Godiva chocolates" from Abramoff, adding that a box worth $250 would be "memorable." Doolittle spokeswoman Laura Blackann said the Seinfeld CDs were of negligible value.
Tara Setmayer, a spokeswoman for Rohrabacher, said that the congressman does not recall receiving a fruit basket from Abramoff but added that between the two close friends, it was a "regular practice" to exchange gifts. She said anything the congressman received from the lobbyist was "under the limit" set by the House.
As is typical with many lobbyists -- and not illegal or improper -- clients received generous gifts. In Abramoff's case they included Tiffany trinkets, Montblanc pens and $300 clocks.
Kathryn Van Hoof, a lawyer for the Coushatta Indian tribe, was to receive a $200 Montblanc pen. In March 2001, she negotiated a lobbying contract with Abramoff that called for the tribe to pay his firm $125,000 a month. Chitimacha tribe chairman Alton D. LeBlanc Jr., who publicly defended Abramoff's $120,000 annual lobbying fees, was also to get a Montblanc.
Identical pens were to go to Marina Nevskaya and Alexander Koulakovsky, two Russian oil executives who had hired Abramoff to help them arrange meetings with DeLay and lobby for federal aid. Willie Tan, a textile magnate in the Mariana Islands who helped direct $650,000 to a nonprofit group linked to DeLay, was to get a Montblanc, and two of Tan's aides were to get fruit baskets.
Nell Rogers, the Choctaw tribe's liaison with Abramoff and the person who processed his firm's multimillion-dollar bills, was to get a Baccarat bowl. At congressional hearings in June 2005, she would describe Abramoff's work for the tribe as "a story of betrayal."
Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who agreed in October 2001 to help Abramoff stifle a new casino that could compete with an Abramoff client casino, was to receive a fruit basket. "Let's give him a list of things we want . . . [and] some chump change to get it done," Abramoff told a partner about Reed in a February 2002 e-mail.
Amy and David Ridenour, who ran the National Center for Public Policy Research, were to get a $100 fruit basket. A congressional report would later describe their nonprofit organization as an "appendage" of Abramoff's lobbying operation, and Abramoff himself, in a 2002 e-mail, would tell a client that their group "can direct money at our discretion, anywhere if you know what i mean."
Maynard Kahgegab, a chief of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe that signed a costly lobbying contract with Abramoff in December 2001, was listed tentatively as the recipient of a Tiffany platinum alarm clock valued at $295. In an e-mail on Dec. 17 of that year, Abramoff described members of that tribe as "troglodytes." A tribal council removed Kahgegab from office on June 2, 2004, for misconduct related to Abramoff.
Abramoff has been telling federal investigators about many of these connections since he pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to bribe public officials; his sentence for that crime is slated to be meted out in the spring. A spokesman for Abramoff's lawyer declined to comment.
Staff researcher Karl Evanzz and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this article.