Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Don Young (R-Alaska) sought to intervene with a federal agency in September 2002 on behalf of American Indian clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff as part of Abramoff’s effort to gain control of the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington, D.C.
LaTourette and Young both wrote to the General Services Administration in September 2002 urging Stephen Perry, then head of the GSA, to give preferential treatment to organizations such as Indian tribes when the GSA evaluated proposals to develop the Old Post Office site.
Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, received $7,000 from two of Abramoff’s tribal clients just weeks after the letters went to the GSA.
LaTourette, for his part, said he agreed to send the letters after being lobbied on the issue by a former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Ney is under investigation by the Justice Department over his ties to Abramoff. Ten days ago, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pressured Ney into giving up his gavel at the House Administration Committee because of his alleged involvement in the Abramoff scandal.
Abramoff’s interest in leasing and developing the Old Post Office building is one of the key pieces of the federal government’s case against David Safavian, the former GSA chief of staff who was indicted Sept. 19 on charges of making false statements to Senate and federal investigators and obstruction of justice.
Abramoff himself pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officers. The one-time lobbying superstar is cooperating with the Justice Department in its ongoing corruption probe.
In its complaint against Safavian, federal prosecutors allege that Abramoff repeatedly sought guidance from Safavian on how best to proceed in winning control of the Old Post Office.
An affidavit filed by an FBI agent in support of the Safavian complaint states that Abramoff sought “changes in the regulations governing the development of the [Old Post Office], including the granting of HUBZone contracting preferences that could have given some of Lobbyist A’s tribal clients a competitive advantage in efforts to lease and develop the building.” Lobbyist A, while not named, is Abramoff.
The affidavit also adds further details on Abramoff and Safavian’s interactions with regard to the Old Post Office, Washington’s second tallest building and a downtown tourist magnet for more than 100 years.
“Lobbyist A solicited SAFAVIAN’s assistance and guidance regarding leasing the [Old Post Office] from GSA,” the affidavit states. “For example, on July 22, 2002, Lobbyist A sent an e-mail to SAFAVIAN’s home e-mail address containing a draft letter purportedly to be sent by at least two Members of Congress to the Administrator of GSA and requesting special consideration for HUBZone businesses. Lobbyist A asked SAFAVIAN, ‘Does this work, or do you want it to be longer?’”
The affidavit adds: “SAFAVIAN responded to Lobbyist A’s requests for assistance and guidance regarding leasing the OPO from GSA. For example, on July 25, 2002, SAFAVIAN forwarded an e-mail describing resistance by an Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) employee to leasing the OPO from GSA. SAFAVIAN advised Lobbyist A, “I suspect we’ll end up having to bring some Hill pressure to bear on OMB.’” It is unclear who at OMB objected or why.
HUBZone is the acronym for “historically underutilized business zone,” and small businesses located in those areas are given preferences on government contracts. HUBZone businesses include American Indian tribes.
In an interview Tuesday, LaTourette said Neil Volz, a former top aide to Ney, approached his office in late July 2003 and asked him to write to the GSA regarding the Old Post Office facility. At the time, LaTourette was the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management, which has jurisdiction over federal facilities like the Old Post Office building.
LaTourette said he agreed to the request because Volz was “an old friend,” and that after checking with staffers at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he saw no problems with contacting Perry on the issue.
LaTourette added that he never personally met with Volz regarding the two letters he sent to the GSA in September 2002.
Volz left Ney’s staff and went to work for Abramoff at the firm Greenberg Traurig in February 2002. Ney’s subsequent involvement that year with Abramoff, including taking part in a Scotland golf junket in August 2002, was part of the plea deal that Abramoff struck with the Justice Department. Both Ney and Volz are referenced in the plea document, although neither is singled out by name.
Volz contacted LaTourette’s office on July 23, 2002, seeking a meeting with the Ohio Republican or his staffers regarding the Old Post Office building. Volz’s request is spelled out in an e-mail to one of the Ohio Republican’s aides. The e-mail was given to Roll Call by LaTourette for this story.
In the e-mail, Volz said he had tried to contact LaTourette’s personal office chief of staff but found that she was not available. Volz then e-mailed another aide “seeking advice” when his first message went unreturned.
“With her being out though, I wasn’t sure who to contact since we have a time sensitive issue I was hoping Congressman LaTourette could take a look at,” Volz wrote. “Do you have a few minutes sometime soon so that I could you a call to chat about a building/gsa issue? Or could you give me some advice on who I should contact to talk through.”
Volz was directed by LaTourette’s aide to speak to staffers on the subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management.
In August 2002, Safavian was part of a golf junket to Scotland that included Abramoff, Volz, Ney and others. The trip cost more than $150,000, according to The Washington Post.
In the Sept. 5, 2002, letter, LaTourette asked Perry to give preferential treatment for HUBZone business as the GSA evaluated proposals to develop the Old Post Office.
“As GSA proceeds with this important historic reuse project, I urge you to give consideration to providing additional opportunities for Hubzone businesses in the redevelopment process,” LaTourette wrote. “Specifically, I ask that you consider giving Hubzone businesses an advance opportunity to provide redevelopment proposals that could be given priority if they otherwise meet” federal requirements.
LaTourette and Young then sent the exact same letter to Perry again one week later.
The letters were provided to Roll Call as part of a Freedom of Information Act request to the GSA.
Perry responded to the two lawmakers’ letters on Nov. 19, 2002. Perry said the GSA expected that redevelopment of the Old Post Office “will require significant diversity in skills and experience” for those taking on the project, including expertise in such fields as “historic preservation, architecture/design, real estate finance, construction management, estimation, commercial development, residential development and property management.” The GSA’s view was that only “development teams,” not individual organizations, would be able to meet federal standards for the project.
Perry, however, added that there would be “many opportunities for small business concerns which will include HUBZone small business, minority and women-owned business. We anticipate opportunities for small businesses to participate either as development team members or subcontractors to team members.”
A former Abramoff associate said Abramoff wanted to build a hotel on the Old Post Office site, although it is unclear if it would have been entirely paid for by tribal funds. The project, however, never got beyond the planning stage.
LaTourette said on Tuesday that “there were two things that concerned us” when his staff drafted the letters to the GSA — “preference and an advanced look.”
According to LaTourette, the GSA was already giving special preferences and briefings to HUBZone businesses on similar federal projects, so there was no conflict there.
LaTourette said he “assumed” that Volz was acting on behalf of one of his tribal clients at Greenberg Traurig in making the request for a letter to the GSA. “I mean, why else would he come in?” LaTourette asked.
LaTourette later co-sponsored legislation to create a national women’s museum at the Old Post Office site.
Mike Anderson, chief of staff in Young’s personal office, called the Alaska Republican’s letter to the GSA “a coincidence.” Anderson said Young has “no recollection” of how that letter to the GSA came about, although he was adamant that Young cannot recall ever meeting with Abramoff personally.
Anderson said he could not provide records of any meetings between Transportation Committee staff and any Greenberg Traurig lobbyists or tribal representatives.
Anderson denied that Young ever sought to help Abramoff. “There is no relationship between Young and Abramoff,” Anderson said.
Young, however, has an extensive history of acting on behalf of Abramoff’s lobbying clients.
His leadership political action committee, the Midnight Sun PAC, received $7,000 from two of Abramoff’s tribal clients, the Aqua Caliente of California and Mississippi Choctaws, on Oct. 17, 2002, just five weeks after he wrote to Perry.
All together, the Midnight Sun PAC received $12,000 from Abramoff’s tribal clients during the 2001-02 election cycle.
In addition, one of the Alaska Republican’s former aides, Duane Gibson, went to work for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig several months before Young intervened with the GSA on the Old Post Office site.
Going back to 1997, Young, then chairman of the House Resources Committee, authored legislation to hold a plebiscite in Puerto Rico over the island’s political future. At the time, Abramoff was also lobbying in favor of a Puerto Rican plebiscite.
Young also repeatedly acted to aid the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a group of Pacific Ocean islands controlled by the United States. The CNMI government paid Abramoff $8 million to lobby on its behalf.
Young refused to hold hearings on the conditions for CNMI garment-industry workers despite complaints over their treatment, and he also blocked a proposal by House Democrats to boost the minimum wage on the islands. Young visited the CNMI in 1999 along with a number of Resource Committee members.
While Young received considerable financial backing from Abramoff clients, the former lobbyist never donated directly to Young’s re-election campaigns or his leadership PAC. All together, Abramoff’s tribal clients gave $20,000 to Young.
In 2000, the firm Preston Gates Ellis Rouvelas & Meeds, then Abramoff’s employer, held a tribute to Young during the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
Young also used Abramoff’s skybox at the MCI Center in D.C. for two fundraisers, events he did not report to the Federal Election Commission until after the Abramoff scandal broke.
Anderson dismissed the overlap between Young and Abramoff as “mere circumstance.”
“If Abramoff is lobbying for Resources-related issues, which he did, what is the likelihood that Mr. Young and [Abramoff’s] clients are going to be in a nexus sometime?” Anderson asked.
LaTourette, a former member of the House ethics committee, received no campaign contributions from Abramoff or his clients during the 2001-02 cycle, and neither the lawmaker nor his staff ever took any trips paid for by an organization tied to Abramoff.