In a Nov. 8 article, the Business Roundtable and Humana were incorrectly described as clients of Jack Abramoff, former lobbyist for the firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP, in 2003. The firms are clients of Greenberg Traurig. The error resulted from inaccurate information on a Web site operated by the U.S. Senate that contains required disclosure reports submitted by registered lobbyists. (Published 11/17/04)
Shortly after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, tribal leaders of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians approached lobbyist Jack Abramoff with a problem. The tribe's Silver Star Hotel & Casino had barely opened and already legislation was moving forward in Congress calling for Indian casinos to be taxed in the same manner as Las Vegas gambling facilities.
Abramoff knew how to take care of the Choctaws. He convinced the House Republican leadership that it had violated a core principle of the new conservative majority: It had raised taxes. The legislation was scuttled.
With Indian gambling revenue now exceeding $16 billion annually, Abramoff's success saved the tribes hundreds of millions of dollars. Soon, he was representing half a dozen other Indian tribes, some paying his firm $2 million or more a year.
In less than a decade, Abramoff's ties to Republican congressional leaders and powerbrokers in the conservative movement catapulted him into the highest ranks of Washington lobbyists. By 2003, Abramoff's clients -- including the Business Roundtable, Atofina Chemicals, Humana, Primedia Inc. and tribal clients -- paid his law firm $11.57 million in fees, one of the highest such sums in Washington.
Paving the way for Abramoff's rise were his ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.
Abramoff's success lay in his ability to portray clients as exemplars of successful free market competition under attack by overzealous Democrats. On behalf of Indian tribes and other clients, Abramoff convinced the GOP majority that Democrats were bent on regulating and taxing the entrepreneurial vitality out of the U.S. economy. In effect, he turned conservative orthodoxy into a cash spigot.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), said Abramoff convinced him that "it was the conservatives who would be the saviors of the Indians by providing an environment where they could be self-sufficient and run their own affairs instead of being like inner-city welfare recipients."
Now, however, the $66 million that Abramoff and his business partner, public affairs consultant Michael Scanlon, charged Indian tribes has become the focus of separate investigations by a federal grand jury and Congress. The controversy has produced disclosures embarrassing to some of Abramoff's political allies.
Already, the inquiries have revealed that Abramoff and Scanlon -- DeLay's former spokesman -- channeled money to Reed and Norquist's organizations. Reed has been forced to explain receipt of money channeled from casinos through Abramoff; Norquist, in turn, has denied that the payments he received drove the pro-tribe agenda of Americans for Tax Reform.
Abramoff declined to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post, Abramoff spokesman Peter G. Mirijanian said: "The current controversy has temporarily prevented him from engaging in the activism which animated his life and gave him fulfillment, and this pains him greatly."
Ideologue to Lobbyist
The 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate was a crucial moment in Abramoff's transformation from a conservative ideologue into an influential lobbyist. He became a valuable commodity, a conservative K Street figure with direct access to the newly powerful right wing of the Republican Party.
Abramoff, 46, grew up in Margate, N.J., and moved in his early teens to Beverly Hills, where his father was president of the Diners Club credit-card franchises. At Beverly Hills High, Abramoff was an all-conference football lineman and regional weightlifting champion. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1980 and later received a law degree from Georgetown.
Abramoff came to Washington in 1981 after becoming chairman of the College Republicans. The organization has produced some of the party's top operatives: Karl Rove, now President Bush's chief political adviser, was elected chairman in 1973. Lee Atwater, who went on to manage George H.W. Bush's successful 1988 presidential bid, ran southern operations for the Rove campaign.
In 1981, Norquist became Abramoff's executive director at the College Republicans. Reed signed on as an intern and took over as executive director in 1983.
While at the College Republicans, Abramoff, Norquist and Reed quickly earned reputations as zealots. Abramoff wrote in the 1983 annual report: "It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the Left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently." The group's recruits were required to memorize a speech that included the lines: "Democrats are the enemy. Wade into them! Spill their blood!"
Two years later, Abramoff and Norquist took over Citizens for America, a conservative advocacy group created by drugstore magnate Lewis Lehrman. After the two arranged a costly "summit meeting" of anti-communist leaders in Angola, Lehrman, according to media accounts, let Abramoff and Norquist go.
In 1986, Abramoff became chairman of the International Freedom Foundation, which was secretly financed with $1.5 million a year from the white South African government, according to sworn testimony to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mirijanian said Abramoff denies receiving money from the South African government.
Between 1986 and 1994, Abramoff was president of Regency Entertainment Group, a company that financed ideologically conservative movies, including the 1989 film "Red Scorpion."
Abramoff took a job as a Washington lobbyist for the firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in 1994. In its hiring announcement, the firm said that Abramoff "maintains strong ties to Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom Delay and [House] Republican Policy Committee Chairman Chris Cox and their staffs."
Using His GOP Ties
Those ties brought the Choctaws to Abramoff. To win their battle, Abramoff sought out DeLay. The two had become friends and allies in the course of Abramoff's work for conservative causes, and Abramoff had supported DeLay's bid to become whip. Abramoff also turned to Norquist.
Norquist formed a coalition of anti-tax organizations to oppose the tax on Indian casino gambling. The coalition lobbied lawmakers, wrote letters and called editorial writers. The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, ran an editorial declaring that "Republicans should not be in the business of increasing anybody's taxes" and should "jettison the House tax on Indian gambling."
The Choctaw began contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Americans for Tax Reform and similar groups. Norquist won't disclose how much, but Abramoff told the Wall Street Journal in 2000 that the Choctaw have given "several million dollars" to outside groups, and that Americans for Tax Reform was a leading recipient.
Abramoff convinced the House whip that not only did the proposal raise taxes, but also that Indian tribes could become Republican allies. Noting that some Indians were moving toward the GOP, DeLay said in 1995 that "people recognize that Jack Abramoff has been an important part of this transition."
Later, Abramoff brought in Reed, who was paid $4.2 million from 2001 to 2003 to mobilize Christians to oppose the plans of those threatening Abramoff's Indian gaming clients. In 2001, Abramoff left Preston Gates and joined the Miami-based law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP.
In 1995, Abramoff took on another major client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American protectorate in the Pacific. Again, he capitalized on his ability to exploit conservative ideology.
The Marianas sought to retain exemptions from U.S. immigration and labor laws to import laborers from China at $3.05 an hour -- $2 under the federal minimum wage -- to make garments labeled "Made in the U.S.A." Abramoff portrayed the Marianas as a case study of the success of the free market unfettered by wage and immigration laws.
DeLay became Abramoff's strongest ally, leading the fight against Democratic efforts to impose wage, hour and immigration regulations on the protectorate. On a trip to the Marianas, DeLay told officials, according to media accounts:
"When one of my closest and dearest friends, Jack Abramoff, your most able representative in Washington, D.C., invited me to the islands, I wanted to see firsthand the free-market success and the progress and reform you have made."
Now, however, DeLay and many of Abramoff's past friends and allies are keeping their distance. DeLay's staff has issued a statement in his name declaring that "if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately."
In an e-mail, Mirijanian said that Abramoff "hopes that eventually his actions will be seen in context and this difficult period will pass. When that happens, he will assess how he can best serve the causes and community he cherishes."