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Abramoff Charities Scrutinized

The Senate Finance Committee is reviewing new documents it obtained through subpoena from two of Jack Abramoff’s former law firms in conjunction with its ongoing probe of the ex-lobbyist’s use of nonprofit groups to further his criminal bribery scheme.

The committee is conducting a broad probe of nonprofits and foundations seeking to determine whether tax-exempt entities have abused their privilege in pursuit of political goals, including an examination of Abramoff-linked charities.

After announcing its intention to probe the Abramoff charities a year ago, Finance has recently stepped up its research into the matter, and aides are now poring over thousands of e-mails and other documents it has obtained.

Last month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee shuttled as many as 100 pages of documents to Finance related to Abramoff charities that it obtained from the admitted felon’s former law firms during its nearly two-year probe of the lobbyist.

In addition, the Finance Committee has quietly sought out more documents from the two firms — Greenberg Traurig and Preston Gates Ellis and Rouvelas Meeds — in recent weeks and months.

“The Finance Committee has subpoenaed and received documents from Greenberg Traurig and Preston Gates Ellis related to its review of nonprofits with links to Jack Abramoff,” the committee said in a joint statement from Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Grassley and Baucus are “reviewing the documents as part of their ongoing, broad-scale look at whether tax-exempt groups are misused for financial or political gain,” the committee said in its statement.

In addition to bilking his tribal clients out of $40 million, Abramoff pleaded guilty Jan. 3 to a bribery conspiracy that involved providing gifts, employment for relatives and lavish trips to lawmakers in exchange for official acts. Some of those bribes used charities Abramoff controlled or that were run by his close allies, allowing him to launder money from his lobbying clients into the nonprofits, which would then pay for the trips or the employment of the relatives.

The probes by Indian Affairs and Finance have run concurrently with a multi-agency criminal investigation led by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department. Justice in particular has focused on four lawmakers — Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) — and their former staffers. Each of those lawmakers had at least one former aide go to work for Abramoff.

Each of the four lawmakers has denied any wrongdoing and welcomed a report in Monday’s Roll Call that Justice had been reviewing their financial disclosure forms, a sign, they hope, that the Abramoff probe may be moving toward a culmination.

While the Justice investigation has remained largely secretive beyond releasing plea agreements such as Abramoff’s, the Indian Affairs hearings shined a very bright light on his dealings, and the Finance probe has the potential to continue keeping the matter in the spotlight.

In a brief interview last week, however, Grassley said he was not yet certain that there would be any hearings on the overall investigation into nonprofit abuse. He cited Abramoff’s activities with charities as an “outstanding example” of illegal behavior, but said any report or hearings held by his panel would cover a wide range of nonprofit activities, and not just focus on those associated with Abramoff.

“It won’t be separate from where we go on all of them,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if we’ll have hearings. I don’t know.”

If they do hold hearings, Grassley and Baucus will have a chance to draw even more attention to how Abramoff moved money around to finance his alleged bribes to Members. His Jan. 3 plea agreement specifically cited the August 2002 trip to Scotland with Ney, conservative activist Ralph Reed and former government procurement officer David Safavian, which cost $161,000 according to documents released by Indian Affairs. The tab was officially paid for by the Capital Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit run by Abramoff, but the funding was provided by a handful of his lobbying clients in payments sent to the foundation.

Abramoff ran at least two more trips to Scotland, one with DeLay in 2000 and another with Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) in 2003, which also involved playing golf at the legendary St. Andrews.

Aides to Finance declined to comment on what the new documents under review will reveal, as did the firms themselves.

“The firm will cooperate fully with the Finance Committee, as it has with every other investigation,” Preston Gates Ellis said in a statement provided by a public relations specialist.

While Indian Affairs and Finance have conducted their own Abramoff-related investigations, the Senate Ethics Committee has publicly stated that it will not weigh in on any matters connected to the criminal probe until Justice has completed its work.

Ethics Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who issued a letter several weeks ago explaining his panel’s decision to keep its hand out of the matter, said last week that the inaction by his committee was prompted by Justice.

“We were requested by the Justice Department to stay out of it,” Voinovich said, adding that the agency “felt it would be counter-productive” for Ethics to get involved.

“If somebody’s going to be indicted, we don’t go sticking our oar in that water,” he said. Voinovich added that he had no knowledge of whether anyone in the Senate might face an indictment.

In addition, Voinovich said that his panel was following what he called the “Torricelli precedent,” citing the way Ethics handled its investigation of then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) in 2002. In that case, the panel waited until Justice concluded its probe — no indictments were ever brought — and forwarded its files to Ethics.

In late July 2002, Ethics “severely admonished” the Senator for accepting thousands of dollars worth of inappropriate gifts from a donor, dealing him a fatal blow to his re-election effort that year and causing him to give up his campaign.

Voinovich said that the Torricelli probe moved expeditiously because the committee did not have to do its own research, a benefit that he expects to have again once Justice is done with its Abramoff investigation and Ethics conducts its own inquiry.

“We had the benefit of having all that information,” he said of the Torricelli investigation. “I have every reason to believe, once they’re done with this investigation, they will take all their files and bring them over to us.”

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