Members Flee Fallout From Abramoff

Posted February 28, 2005 at 6:27pm

The list of lawmakers caught up in the scandal surrounding former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff continues to grow, as two Republican Senators — David Vitter (La.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) — said they were duped by the once high-flying influence peddler.

Vitter inserted a provision in the fiscal 2004 Interior spending bill that aided one of Abramoff’s American Indian clients, the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, but insists he did not do so at the behest of Abramoff.

The Coushattas own a casino that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually and were attempting to prevent a rival tribe from opening its own casino in Louisiana. Vitter’s provision warned the Interior Department not to approve the new casino request, made by the Jena Choctaw tribe.

During his run for the Senate last year, Vitter acknowledged his close ties to an anti-gambling group in Louisiana called the Committee Against Gambling Expansion, which was funded by the Coushattas and other tribes. But Vitter has said repeatedly that he had no idea of the source of funding for CAGE, although he worked hand-in-hand with the group on several occasions. Vitter has also stated that he never met Abramoff or received campaign contributions from him.

Burns and his former chief of staff, Will Brooke, say they too were taken in by Abramoff, whom they turned to for fundraising help in 2001. Burns’ re-election committee and two PACs tied to the Montana Republican received $134,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, Indian tribes that he lobbied for and his business associates during the 2001-02 election cycle, more than one-fifth of what the veteran lawmaker raised in that entire period.

Burns has asserted that he never did anything to assist Abramoff or his clients. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Burns played a pivotal role in drafting the 2004 Interior funding, which contains two other provisions benefiting Abramoff’s Indian clients in addition to the Jena Choctaw language inserted by Vitter.

The Montana Republican now describes his relationship with Abramoff as “distant,” although one of Abramoff’s former colleagues at the firm Greenberg Traurig LLP went to work for Burns as his state director in late 2001 before returning to Greenberg Traurig just over a year later.

Burns’ former top aide, Brooke, also later went to work for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig, only weeks after the 2004 Interior spending bill was adopted by Congress. Brooke said he quickly became disillusioned with Abramoff’s tactics, and almost left the firm before his contract had expired. Brooke formally ended his ties with Greenberg Traurig at the end of 2004.

The interactions between Abramoff and these GOP lawmakers illustrate some of the ways the former lobbyist was able to build relationships with influential Members of Congress. Using hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, liberal loans of luxury suites at some of Washington’s top sporting venues, and jobs for well-connected former Congressional staffers, Abramoff built an impressive network of contacts on Capitol Hill and within the Bush administration. Those contacts allowed Abramoff to charge some of the highest fees of any K Street lobbyist, and during the late 1990s and beyond he took in tens of millions of dollars in payments from grateful clients.

All that fell apart last year after reports emerged that Abramoff and Republican grass-roots specialist Michael Scanlon were paid more than $82 million by a half-dozen Indian tribes between 2001 and 2003. After several of the tribes elected new leaders, they began to complain that the payments to Abramoff and Scanlon were excessive, and some tribes have even sued the two men, seeking the return of their money.

The complaints from the Indian tribes also brought scrutiny from federal and Congressional investigators, who continue to pore over the business dealings of the two men.

Abramoff was forced out of Greenberg Traurig one year ago this week and has since been hauled before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to answer questions about his business activities, something he declined to do. Lawmakers once close to Abramoff, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), now want nothing to do with him. A federal grand jury has issued dozens of subpoenas to potential witnesses in the case, and official Washington continues to speculate over what will happen next.

The legislative language inserted by Vitter in the Interior bill declared that Congress did not want the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the Interior Department, or the National Indian Gaming Commission to grant a request by the Jena Choctaw tribe for additional land to open up a new casino. Vitter, a longtime gambling opponent, was vehemently opposed to the Jena Choctaws’ efforts.

Abramoff was at that time lobbying on behalf of the Coushattas, who had their own casino in southwestern Louisiana and feared the Jena Choctaws’ proposed casino, closer to the Texas-Louisiana border, would draw away gamblers coming in from the Lone Star State. Abramoff was paid $5.7 million by the Coushattas in the period from 2001 to 2003 for lobbying work, according to federal lobbying records, and the tribe shelled out tens of millions of dollars more to Scanlon, who then rerouted some of those funds back to Abramoff as “referral fees.”

The Committee Against Gambling Expansion also opposed the Jena Choctaws’ plan. That organization, set up in 2001 by the former executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, received funding from the Coushattas as well.

Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director and current candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, also raised money for and spoke out on behalf of CAGE. Reed ultimately received more than $4 million from Abramoff and Scanlon for his work on anti-gambling initiatives in Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. These campaigns helped Abramoff’s tribal clients by freezing competitors out of those gambling markets. Reed, who had known Abramoff since their days as College Republicans, has stated that he was not aware that these funds came from Abramoff’s tribal clients.

While Vitter and his aides have adamantly denied that he had any knowledge that CAGE was receiving financial backing from the Coushattas, Vitter’s opposition to the Jena Choctaws’ casino was enormously helpful to Abramoff and the Coushattas.

Vitter “came up with this himself. He was worried about Indian gaming,” said Mac Abrams, Vitter’s communications director, of the measure inserted by his boss into the 2004 Interior spending bill. Vitter himself told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in mid-October, when the issue of CAGE’s ties to Abramoff and the Coushattas was first raised by Democrats, that he had no idea the Coushattas were funding the group. Louisiana records show CAGE was incorporated in Baton Rouge in 2001 by Rhett Davis, a former state GOP official with strong ties to Christian groups, according to the Times-Picuyane.

“I had the impression that it was a strong anti-gambling organization and run by Louisiana folks with the Christian community,” Vitter told the newspaper in a story published Oct. 15. “If it is true that it was funded by gambling interests, I would have thought twice about [using] them.”

Abrams also said that Vitter “has never met with Jack Abramoff. Never.” Vitter did not receive any campaign contributions from Abramoff and while the Coushattas gave $2,000 to Vitter in on Feb. 18, 2002, the donation was later returned.

Vitter’s opposition to the Jena Choctaw casino was well known throughout the state and began to make headlines as soon as former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) inked a secret deal with the tribe in early 2002. On Feb. 19, 2002, a day after receiving the campaign contribution from the Coushattas, Vitter wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton outlining his opposition to the proposal. Vitter would write seven letters to Norton on this issue in the next year.

On Feb. 26, 2002, Vitter met with representatives from the Coushatta tribe; they told him of their own concerns about the Jena Choctaws’ proposal.

CAGE offered political cover to Vitter on two separate occasions. The group sent out a mailer in 2002 praising Vitter for opposing the Jena Choctaw casino. CAGE later allowed Vitter to use its name during a phone-bank campaign that Vitter set up when he briefly considered a gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Vitter eventually decided against entering that race.

Abrams said his boss had tried to get language into the 2003 Interior funding bill to block the Jena Choctaws’ casino but failed to do so.

The proposal that Vitter sent the following year to Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, actually went further than what Congress finally approved.

Vitter’s proposal, dated April 3, 2003, would have formally blocked any funds included in the Interior bill from being used in any way that would allow any Indian tribe to take land into trust for a casino. In his letter to Taylor, Vitter pointed out that Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), in whose district the new Jena Choctaw casino would be built, backed his request.

Taylor did not include Vitter’s language in the original House version of the Interior bill, and the proposal was never vetted by any House committee.

But as the House and Senate wrangled over the final version of the 2004 Interior bill, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) was able to convince negotiators to include language cautioning another tribe about building a casino in New York. Vitter then went back to Taylor and renewed his request for language on the Jena Choctaws, and the North Carolina Republican agreed to insert it, according to Abrams.

The approved provision was nonbinding on the Bush administration, although BIA and top officials at the Interior Department would have no doubt that senior lawmakers on the powerful Appropriations committees did not want them to approve the Jena Choctaws’ plan.

“The managers [of the Interior bill] are concerned about the growing number of tribes, both landless and with an existing reservation, that are attempting to claim reservation rights that would allow them to engage in gaming operations in States where they have no reservation or trust land status,” stated the conference report accompanying the 2004 Interior bill. “The Jena Band of Choctaw in Louisiana is attempting to take land into trust for gaming purposes in an area of Louisiana that is outside their traditional service area.”

The report added: “The managers expect the Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission to implement fully the existing rules and regulations governing these types of gaming operations.”

The Jena Choctaws never received approval from the Interior Department for new land to open a casino.

That measure was not the only victory for Abramoff’s clients in the Interior bill that year, however.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) successfully pushed for language urging BIA to complete its review of the recognition request of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. That tribe had retained Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, just as the Interior funding bill was being drafted, although the firm did not file a lobbying disclosure report with Congress until after the bill had already passed.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) played an important role in getting the Mashpee Wampanoag language in the bill. Michael D. Smith, a former top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), himself a member of the Appropriations Committee, worked at Greenberg Traurig and was lobbying Senate Democrats hard on the Interior bill, according to Democratic insiders. Smith has since left Greenberg Traurig.

Michigan Sens. Carl Levin (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D) also succeeded in placing $3 million in the bill for a school operated by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, another Abramoff client.

While Burns and his staff have insisted that they played no role in helping Abramoff include any item in the Interior bill, the former GOP lobbyist had showered Burns with campaign donations during the previous election cycle. Burns is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior.

In addition to the $134,000 Burns’ political entities took in from Abramoff and his clients in 2001-02, in the 2003-04 cycle Burns’ PAC and campaign received another $16,500 from the same sources.

The donations were almost exclusively from Indian tribes. Abramoff was officially registered to lobby for three of the tribes: the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the Saginaw Chippewas and the Louisiana Coushattas.

The Mississippi Choctaws donated $30,000 to Burns’ soft-money PAC in the first half of 2001, the Coushattas kicked in $25,000 in early 2002, and the Saginaw Chippewas gave $20,000, according to federal campaign records.

Another tribe that gave to Burns’ soft-money fund, the Tigua Indians of El Paso, Texas, were secretly getting help from Abramoff. The Tiguas paid Scanlon $4.2 million beginning in early 2002 as part of a stealthy campaign designed to generate Congressional support for reopening the Tiguas’ Texas casino, which had been shut down by state authorities in February of that year. Scanlon then paid Abramoff as much as $2 million in “referral fees,” according to testimony given in November 2004 to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. At no time did Abramoff ever register to lobby for the Tiguas or make known his behind-the-scenes efforts on the tribe’s behalf.

The Tiguas donated $20,000 to the Big Sky Non-Federal PAC in the first quarter of 2002.

A fifth tribe that Abramoff lobbied for, the Agua Caliente Tribe of Palm Springs, Calif., gave $5,000 to the Friends of the Big Sky Federal PAC, Burns’ hard-money PAC, in October 2002. The Coushattas and Mississippi Choctaws each gave $5,000 to Burns’ hard-money PAC as well.

Abramoff himself donated $5,000 in hard money to that same Burns PAC, as did several of his business associates. Adam Kidan, a partner with Abramoff in a failed Florida-based gambling cruise ship company, gave $5,000. Eloy Inos of Saipan, which is part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, gave $5,000. Abramoff had done lobbying work for Willie Tan, owner of Tan Holdings, Inos’ employer. Greenberg Traurig’s own PAC kicked in another $2,000.

Staff members also moved between the employ of Abramoff and Burns.

In late 2001, Burns hired Shawn Vasell, a lobbyist with Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig, to serve as his state director in Montana. In January 2003, Vasell left Burns’ office and went back to work for Greenberg Traurig, where he is still employed as the director of its governmental affairs shop.

Right after the 2004 Interior bill was complete, Abramoff hired Brooke, then Burns’ top aide. At the time, Abramoff told Roll Call that Brooke’s decision to join Greenberg Traurig was “a big hire for us.”

Burns recently described his relationship with Abramoff as “distant.” He said the two men weren’t that close, and suggested that he had kept the lobbyist “at arm’s length” throughout their dealings.

Abramoff “was kind of like a snapping turtle — when he hooked on, he stayed on,” Burns recalled.

During the interview, Burns said that his former aide, Brooke, left Greenberg Traurig after only one year, and added that Brooke thought there was “something fishy — something not quite right” about the way Abramoff conducted his activities at the firm. Brooke signed up several Montana-based clients for Greenberg Traurig before departing at the end of 2004. He is now of counsel for Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & McKinnon, and also has a law practice in Montana.

Burns also said the campaign contributions coming from Abramoff’s clients were based on his longstanding support for increased federal funding for Indian schools, not legislative favors. Burns pointed out that he “had seven [American Indian] reservations in my state.” But none of the tribes Abramoff lobbied for was located in Montana.

In a recent interview, Brooke said that going to work for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig was a big mistake. Brooke also vehemently denied that there was any quid pro quo between Abramoff and Burns.

“I went over there in January ’04, and three weeks later, all this [expletive] hits the fan, stuff coming down about” Abramoff, said Brooke. “I was surprised and taken aback like everybody, because in my meetings with Jack, I said, ‘I want to be with a law firm with a good reputation.’ And he said, ‘Me too. They dot the i’s and cross the t’s and everything is on the up-and-up here.’”

Brooke said he almost resigned from Greenberg Traurig when the furor surrounding Abramoff began, but decided to finish his 12-month contract with the firm. “I had a hard decision to make whether to stay there or not, and quite frankly, I [stayed] because I thought there would be the opportunity to rebuild the government affairs practice,” said Brooke.

Brooke added that he had no role in inserting any legislative items benefiting Abramoff or his clients in any appropriations bill.

“None of those matters came to me as [Burns’] chief of staff,” said Brooke. “To the extent that they were being worked on in the Appropriations Committee, I expected that they had gone through the proper channels.”

Brooke acknowledged that Abramoff, whose contacts among conservatives allowed him to tap into vast financial networks on behalf of GOP lawmakers, was an attractive target for him and Burns as they sought to raise money for the Montana Republican’s leadership PACs several years ago. The Washington Post has reported that Abramoff helped steer more than $3 million to GOP candidates and incumbents.

Burns also was not the only Senator on the Interior panels to benefit from Abramoff’s fundraising abilities

For instance, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) received $44,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients in 2001-02. All but $2,000 of that was in soft money. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), now chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, received $33,500 in hard-money contributions. Cochran put $16.3 million into a 2002 funding for a tribal jail for the Mississippi Choctaws. Dorgan, who Burns’ office said was responsible for the inclusion of one of the measures benefiting Abramoff clients in the 2004 Interior bill, got $15,000 in soft money through his leadership PAC during the same period.

Brooke, Burns’ ex-aide, said he received numerous requests from Abramoff associates during his time at Burns’ office, and turned many of them down flat because they “didn’t pass the smell test.”

One of those requests was for up to $6 million to build a hospital in Israel, money that would have been funneled through the Pentagon. Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, was known as a major pro-Israel booster.

“These things had to stand on their own merit through the screening process, though the committee process,” said Brooke. “There was no quid pro quo — hell no.”