By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008
If lobbyists find the path to their clients' riches obstructed by an implacably hostile federal official, they might achieve success by an end run or an appeal to more senior authorities. But a more extreme solution -- if the foe has high-level support -- is to pull strings at the White House and orchestrate the official's removal.
That option was chosen by Jack Abramoff and his colleagues at the Washington office of Greenberg Traurig in the Bush administration's early days, to oust Alan Stayman from a State Department negotiating job. Stayman had earned their ire by advocating labor reforms in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate where Abramoff's clients wanted to keep paying immigrants less than the federal minimum wage to work in textile factories.
Stayman was supported by James A. Kelly, who was a White House aide to President Ronald Reagan and served as the State Department's assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific from 2001 to 2005. Kelly, citing ongoing negotiations with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, told his department's personnel office on May 1, 2001, that he wanted Stayman to remain for two more years.
But Abramoff's path to success in what an aide called "the Stayman project" is spelled out in a set of internal White House, State Department and Greenberg Traurig e-mails provided to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and made public last week.
Providing a rare glimpse of high-level, behind-the-scenes string-pulling, they show how Abramoff, now serving a prison term for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, relied on key White House contacts, including Susan Ralston, executive assistant to political adviser Karl Rove; Monica Kladakis, then deputy White House personnel chief; and Ken Mehlman, then the White House political director.
Each had ties to Abramoff and his aides. Ralston was an Abramoff assistant at Greenberg before joining Rove's staff in February 2001, Kladakis had worked in the House Republican whip's office with Abramoff aide Tony Rudy, and Mehlman went to Abramoff's house for a Sabbath dinner and saw him at Republican events. Another key participant was Matt Schlapp, then Mehlman's deputy.
Here is a sampling of their 2001 e-mail traffic:
Jan. 29: Rudy to a Greenberg colleague: "We need to get the background material on stayman to ken mehlman. . . . He said he would kill him."
Colleague to Rudy: "What???"
Rudy to colleague: "Mehlman said he would get him fired."
Colleague to Rudy: "Excellent."
May 9: Kladakis to Rudy: "I have not forgotten your concern about Alan Stayman -- we just have had to work on filling our top positions before focusing on the possibly problematic people."
June 11: Rudy to Kladakis: "Stayman is a term appointment and his current term ends June 23. If not renewed, that would be it for Al. Any news?"
June 14: Rudy to Kladakis: "Here is a perfect candidate for stayman's job."
June 18: Rudy to Schlapp: "There is a Clintonista . . . scheduled to be renewed on the 23rd of this month unless action is taken. . . . Is there any way you can weigh in presidential personnel?"
Schlapp to Kladakis: "How do we fix this?"
Kladakis to Schlapp: "I need to know if Stayman is a career or a political appointee. . . . I think we can do something about it, but I'm trying to figure out what is the best way to go about it. I don't want a firing scandal on our hands."
June 20: Kladakis to Schlapp: "Good news -- State is going to inform Stayman that his term is not going to be extended, so as of June 30 he will be gone. I will let Tony Rudy know."
June 25: Abramoff to Ralston: "We have been informed that [Stayman] . . . may be retained . . . by the Bush Administration. . . . We think Mr. Stayman's retention would be a serious mistake." The e-mail cited allegations that aides to Stayman in a previous job were involved in improper political efforts and that Stayman had donated money to Democrats. "We urge you to intercede and block the appointment."
June 26: Ralston to Schlapp: "Do you know anything about this?"
Schlapp to Ralston: "Yes, we are all over it. This is a problem."
June 29: Ralston to Rove: "I'm getting many calls from conservatives really angry about this. . . . State is lying about reasons for keeping Stayman on board."
July 2: Ralston to Stephen J. Hadley, then deputy national security adviser: "Karl asked me to pass this email [from Abramoff] on to you. . . . Can you help?"
July 5: Rove to Schlapp: "where are we on this?"
July 6: White House personnel official Stuart W. Holliday to Jack Oliver, then deputy chairman of Republican National Committee: "We pulled the plug on him -- he will be cycling out."
July 9: Ralston to Abramoff: "He'll be out in 4 months."
Abramoff to Ralston: "Great. Thanks."
Stayman told the committee that his State Department boss informed him only that "politics" was behind the decision not to extend his contract. Ralston resigned from the White House in 2006, a week after the House committee revealed that she had accepted tickets to nine sporting and entertainment events from Abramoff.
Mehlman said in a House committee deposition in December 2007 that he had a "general recollection of yeah, there was some guy they didn't like, but I don't remember a lot of the specifics." Kladakis confirmed in an April 2008 deposition that she spoke to Kelly about Stayman. She said lobbyists had contacted the White House personnel office "from time to time" about hiring or firing federal officials.