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Former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff hosted a September 2003 fundraiser for now-Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) just two months before Vitter inserted a provision in an Interior spending bill helping one of Abramoff’s tribal clients.
Vitter has stated repeatedly that he only met Abramoff once and had no idea that Abramoff’s client, the Coushatta Indians of Louisiana, were funding an anti-gambling group with which Vitter had repeated dealings.
But Abramoff hosted a Sept. 9, 2003, fundraiser for Vitter at the restaurant Signatures in Washington, D.C., a popular GOP eatery that Abramoff has a financial stake in.
Abramoff did not make an appearance at the event, although his name was on an invitation for the fundraiser as the host, and the invitation specifically noted that it was to benefit Vitter. Also attending the cocktail reception and dinner as a “special guest” was House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). It’s unclear how much money was raised at the event.
The Abramoff fundraiser for Vitter was first reported by the Web site RawStory.com.
Roll Call reported two weeks ago that Vitter had inserted language in the fiscal 2004 Interior appropriations bill — completed late in 2003 — requesting that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission deny an application from the Jena Choctaw Tribe of Louisiana for land for a gambling casino. BIA comes under the authority of the Interior Department.
The Coushattas, one of Abramoff’s most lucrative clients, feared the Jena Choctaws’ site would harm their own casino, and the tribe funneled tens of millions of dollars to Abramoff and Republican public relations expert Michael Scanlon to help stop it.
The Coushattas provided financial backing to a Louisiana organization called the Committee Against Gambling Expansion. In 2002, after the Jena Choctaws had first announced their casino plans, CAGE did a mailing on behalf of Vitter, a longtime gambling opponent. Vitter later used CAGE’s name in his own phone bank operation.
Vitter has said repeatedly that he had no idea of the source of funding for CAGE. The Louisiana Republican said he thought that CAGE was a Christian group opposed to gambling on ideological grounds. Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a longtime friend of Abramoff’s, spoke out in Louisiana on behalf of CAGE’s activities and raised money for the group.
In addition to stating that Vitter only met Abramoff once, the Louisiana Republican and his aides have repeatedly noted that he received no campaign contributions from the former lobbyist.
Vitter, in a statement released by his office Monday night, said Abramoff did not attend the September 2003 fundraiser. The event was attended by fewer than 10 people, and it was part of an effort by Abramoff to raise money for Vitter from the Jewish community. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House.
“I’ve rechecked all of my campaign finance records and have confirmed again that I’ve never accepted any contributions from Jack Abramoff, the Greenberg Traurig firm, or gambling entities,” Vitter said in the statement. Abramoff worked at Greenberg Traurig until March 2004, when it was publicly reported that he and Scanlon raked in more than $45 million from a half-dozen Indian tribes over three years. That figure has since risen to more than $80 million as additional information was uncovered. Federal and Congressional investigators are now looking into the pair’s business activities.
In his statement, Vitter dismissed any suggestion that he had a close relationship with Abramoff, or had acted at Abramoff’s request when he sought to block the Jena Choctaws’ casino plans. “I never met with Jack Abramoff on any Indian gambling issue. Never,” Vitter said. “Furthermore, to my knowledge, I have only met him once briefly in passing, and to this day I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd.”
Vitter’s campaign to block the Jena Choctaw’s casino extended from early 2002 into late 2003, and consisted of numerous letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in opposition to the tribe’s proposal, as well as repeated public statements on the casino proposal. Vitter also tried to insert language in the fiscal 2003 Interior spending bill but was rebuffed.
“Serving on the House Appropriations committee, I thought a good vehicle to accomplish this would be to insert language into an appropriations bill,” said Vitter, who was elected to the Senate last November after years in the House. “My original initiative in FY 03 was unsuccessful. I made another attempt in the FY04 Interior Conference report, and was successful.”
Vitter acknowledged working with lawyers at Greenberg Traurig in late 2003 to help draft his legislative language for the Interior bill, although his aides adamantly insisted that he did not know that Abramoff or the Coushattas had any connection to CAGE. Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig were paid $5.7 million to lobby for the Coushattas between 2001 and 2003, according to lobbying disclosure reports.