By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff influenced some White House decisions by lavishing exclusive sports tickets and meals on political staff members, but there is no evidence that President Bush was involved, a congressional panel said in a draft report yesterday.
The findings of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee show that the White House had more contacts with Abramoff than it previously acknowledged. But congressional investigators said they found no evidence that Abramoff lobbied Bush on the six occasions the two met or that the president took action in response to any request from the disgraced lobbyist, now in prison.
In January 2006, after Abramoff pleaded guilty, then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he had "checked" into contacts at the executive mansion and found "only a couple of holiday receptions that he attended and then a few staff-level meetings." The committee found that neither McClellan nor his successor, Tony Snow, had checked with five staff members who were key points of contacts for Abramoff's lobby team.
Primary among successes by Abramoff's team, the report found, was persuading Bush officials to seek the removal of Alan Stayman from the State Department position overseeing the relationship with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a major client of Abramoff and his firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Abramoff's activities are the subject of an ongoing federal investigation; it has yielded more than a dozen convictions of congressional aides, lobbyists and public officials. Abramoff is cooperating with investigators while serving a sentence on a related fraud charge. He awaits sentencing in the lobbying scandal.
"High-level White House officials held Mr. Abramoff and his associates in high regard and solicited recommendations from Mr. Abramoff on policy matters," the draft report said.
The document was the second bipartisan review of contacts between Abramoff and the White House issued by the committee, now chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). The first report, written when Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was chairman, found that tickets were given to staffers and that the lobbyists billed clients for more than 400 contacts with White House officials from 2001 to 2004. New details and previously secret White House e-mails were released yesterday.
In the Stayman matter, an e-mail exchange showed the potential sensitivity in the White House. Public affairs director Matt Schlapp wrote, "how do we fix this?" Monica Kladakis, a personnel deputy, replied, "I think we can do something about it, but . . . I don't want a firing scandal on our hands."
Among those getting tickets was senior adviser Karl Rove, who paid Abramoff $150 for three tickets to the NCAA basketball tournament on March 17, 2002. Rove also had use of the suite at Verizon Center to treat his class of College Republicans to a Washington Capitals hockey game on Nov. 9, 2002.
Matt Kirk, special assistant to the president in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, got tickets to two basketball games -- one Washington Wizards outing and an NCAA tournament game.
Jennifer Farley, associate director of the office, attended two Baltimore Orioles games and a Yanni concert. On occasion, Farley apparently used a code word -- "fruit" -- to refer to tickets when conversing with Abramoff lobbyist Kevin Ring, who is under investigation in the matter.
"Do you have any kind of fruit tonight?" Farley wrote Ring on Dec. 12, 2002. "No games tonight," Ring replied. In another e-mail about an issue of interest to an Abramoff client, Ring wrote, "The fruit is going to happen. Just trying to make sure it is picked on the right day."
The report said Farley did not respond to questions about the matter and indicated she would invoke her Fifth Amendment rights if compelled to respond.
On three occasions, White House employees turned down free tickets. Schlapp, a deputy director in the White House political office, declined a ticket offer from Abramoff associate Tony Rudy, telling him in an e-mail that it was because of "ethics rules on this end of the street, and I'm way too broke" to pay for them. Rudy later pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal.
The committee sorted through 156 references to meetings over cocktails or meals in Greenberg Traurig e-mails and billing records to determine who paid for the expensive socializing. Documents released to the committee corroborate only 15 social meetings between White House officials and Abramoff lobbyists, including 11 billed to Abramoff's clients.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the report "confirms what has become clear in all of this -- Abramoff was spectacularly unsuccessful in influencing administration policy."