Friday, September 23, 2005

From Bloomberg.com

Abramoff Probe May Threaten Leading Republicans as It Expands

Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) --

The widening investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff is moving beyond the confines of tawdry influence-peddling to threaten leading figures in the Republican hierarchy that dominates Washington.

This week's arrest of David Safavian, the former head of procurement at the Office of Management and Budget, in connection with a land deal involving Abramoff brings the probe to the White House for the first time.


Safavian once worked with Abramoff at one lobbying firm and was a partner of Grover Norquist, a national Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, at another. Safavian traveled to Scotland in 2002 with Abramoff, Representative Robert Ney of Ohio and another top Republican organizer, Ralph Reed, southeast regional head of President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.


House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who once called Abramoff ``one of my closest and dearest friends,'' already figures prominently in the investigation of the lobbyist's links to Republicans. The probe may singe other lawmakers with ties to Abramoff, such as Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, as well as Ney.


``These people all shared transactions together,'' said former House Democratic counsel Stan Brand, now a partner in the Washington-based Brand Law Group. ``That's always something that worries defense lawyers.''


Nervous Republicans


Some Republicans acknowledge they are nervous. ``Sure there's a concern,'' said former Representative Jack Quinn of New York, who's now president of Cassidy & Associates, a Washington lobbying firm. ``But like everyone else, we have to wait and see where the investigation goes.''


Abramoff, 46, a top fund-raiser for Bush's re-election campaign, is under investigation by a government task force consisting of the Justice Department's public integrity section, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Interior Department's inspector general. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is conducting another inquiry.


Safavian, 38, who in the 1990s worked with Abramoff at the Washington-based lobbying firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, was charged Sept. 19 by the Justice Department with making false statements about whether he had any dealings with the lobbyist in the course of Abramoff's attempts to obtain government land. He was also charged with obstructing an investigation. His lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, told the Washington Post he would vigorously contest the charges.


Safavian took the Scotland trip three years ago aboard a chartered jet. Abramoff was paying for the plane, Safavian said in an e-mail to the ethics office of his employer at the time, the U.S. General Services Administration.


Abramoff's Network


Abramoff's web of connections runs deep in the Republican Party. DeLay, 58, has participated in at least three overseas trips he sponsored; Democrats have demanded that the House ethics committee investigate whether DeLay violated House rules prohibiting lawmakers from accepting trips financed by lobbyists.


One of those trips was to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. DeLay has opposed legislation requiring the Marianas to follow U.S. minimum wage and labor laws. Abramoff was lobbying for the Marianas at the time.


Two former DeLay aides, spokesman Michael Scanlon and deputy chief of staff William Jarrell, worked with Abramoff. Jarrell later was part of Bush's transition team focusing on the Interior Department, the parent agency for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at a time when Abramoff was representing casino-owning tribes. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is investigating Abramoff's and Scanlon's work for the tribes.


Diverted Funds


Abramoff diverted funds paid to him by Indian tribe clients that were supposed to be used on lobbying activities to a variety of personal projects, according to testimony and e-mails released at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. The personal projects ranged from an Orthodox Jewish academy to an Israeli sniper school; some money also went to pay off a personal debt, according to the testimony and e-mails.


Abramoff and Scanlon took in more than $66 million in fees from 2001 to 2004 from tribal clients, according to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Indian affairs panel. In one e-mail released by the Senate committee, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, ``I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw tribal counsel.''


Abramoff also has a relationship with Ney, the Ohio congressman. Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, worked with Abramoff at the Miami-based law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP.


Reopening a Casino


Ney, 51, in 2002 agreed to insert language in federal legislation to allow an Abramoff client, the Tigua Indians of El Paso, Texas, to reopen a casino closed by state authorities. The provision didn't make it into the final measure.


In 2000, Ney placed two statements in the Congressional Record in support of Abramoff's purchase of SunCruz Casino Ltd., a casino ship company. Abramoff was indicted by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in August on wire fraud charges in connection with the purchase.


Burns, 70, who is up for re-election in 2006, has been the subject of an advertising campaign by the Montana Democratic Party criticizing him for receiving $136,500 in donations from Indian tribe clients of Abramoff and Scanlon from 2001 to 2004. Burns in 2003 pushed for a wealthy Michigan Indian tribe, one of Abramoff's clients, to receive a $3 million federal grant.
Two former aides of Burns, Will Brooke and Shawn Vasell, went to work with Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig.
Burns spokesman Grant Toomey said the request for the grant came from the Michigan congressional delegation.


An Offer to Meet


Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said, ``The congressman has sent two letters to the House ethics committee as far back as last year offering to meet with them. To date, there has been no response.'' Walsh said there have been no inquiries from the Justice Department ``on any matter related to Mr. Abramoff.''

DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said the majority leader has asked the ethics committee ``to look into everything in order to exonerate him.''


Norquist declined through a spokesman to comment. Reed didn't respond to a request for comment.


Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Abramoff won't be an issue in next year's mid-term congressional elections. ``No member of Congress has ever been kicked out of office because of an allegation against another member or another lobbyist,'' Patru said. ``Democrats are trying to nationalize the 2006 elections. Their approach has been to throw everything up against the wall and hope something sticks.''


Gambling in Alabama


Abramoff's links to the party go beyond lawmakers. He worked with Reed, a former director of the Republican-oriented Christian Coalition, and Norquist to kill an effort to bring legalized gambling to Alabama.


At Abramoff's behest, one of his tribal clients, whose casino could have been hurt by the competition, sent money to Norquist's anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform, which in turn wrote a check to help Reed's effort.


One of Norquist's former partners in another venture was Safavian. The two men worked at Janus-Merritt Strategies LLC, a Washington lobbying firm that was later sold to a Richmond, Virginia-based law firm, Williams Mullen.


``Safavian is a small fish, but in combination with Abramoff and his ties to Norquist and DeLay, it presents a very inviting target to Democrats,'' said Ross Baker, a political scientist who studies congressional politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Safavian was one of three former Abramoff associates who joined the Bush administration. Another was Patrick Pizzella, assistant secretary of labor for administration and management. The third was Susan Ralston, special assistant to White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jonathan D. Salant in Washington jsalant@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: September 22, 2005 00:05 EDT

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