By MICHAEL HEDGES and BENNETT ROTH, April 13, 2005
WASHINGTON - House Majority Leader Tom DeLay finds himself in political controversy partly because of his close relationship with Jack Abramoff, a former action movie producer turned superstar lobbyist who is now the target of a federal grand jury investigation.
Abramoff, whose alliance with DeLay has been rooted in religious values and conservative politics, has been accused of bilking Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars. His alleged exploitation of Texas' Tigua Indians and other tribes is at the center of the U.S. Justice Department inquiry.
There is no indication that the federal probe has targeted lawmakers. But subpoenas issued by the FBI focus on activities that included DeLay, who has denied wrongdoing.
Some of the subpoenaed records detail Abramoff's work with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington nonprofit organization, according to President Amy Ridenour.
The center was listed in DeLay's travel disclosures as paying for his trips to Moscow and Britain.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw tribe, represented by Abramoff, and eLottery Inc., a gaming company, contributed to the center at the same time DeLay went to Britain.
The combined donations were $50,000, roughly the cost of DeLay's trip, raising the question of whether the companies were asked to pay for the trip by Abramoff as a way to influence DeLay and in possible violation of campaign finance law.
In addition to the Justice Department, two Senate committees are investigating Abramoff's activities with the Indian tribes.
Abramoff made it clear to his tribe clients that part of his six-figure monthly fee was buying his help as someone close to DeLay, according to witnesses at Senate hearings last year.
Bernie Sprague, of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, testified he informed federal investigators that Abramoff told him to make large contributions to a charity controlled by Abramoff as a way to impress DeLay.
Texans for a Republican Majority, a DeLay-founded political action committee, received at least one donation, of $1,000, from the Mississippi Choctaw Indians, an Abramoff client involved in legal gambling.
Abramoff's lawyer denied any wrongdoing took place.
DeLay spokesman Dan Allen declined to comment in general on the relationship between Abramoff and DeLay, R-Sugar Land.
He said he could not comment on specific donations and trip expenses without doing further research.
"Jack Abramoff has become the Beltway version of a human punching bag," said Andrew Blum, spokesman for Abramoff's attorney, Abbe Lowell. "Mr. Abramoff is being criticized for doing what lobbyists do: making proper and legal campaign contributions and traveling with members of Congress."
Making his mark in D.C.
Nevertheless, Abramoff has been hounded by questions about the propriety of the $66 million he and a partner, former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon, got in lobbying fees from Indian groups.
Abramoff compounded his problems when, in e-mail released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, he called his Indian clients "monkeys" and other racist, derogatory names.
Native American Ben Nighthorse Campbell, then a GOP senator from Colorado, said, "These do not sound like the comments of an educated man. It sounded like the comments of somebody out of 150 years ago and some form of bigotry."
It was a rebuke to a man who had made his mark in Washington with a push-the-envelope style, eclectic client list and ability to schmooze with Republican movers and shakers.
In 2004, Abramoff, 46, raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's re-election campaign.
When Abramoff came to Washington 23 years earlier to assume the chairmanship of the College Republicans, he formed ties that would later prove handy in his lobbying. Also, he got a law degree from Georgetown University in 1986.
The College Republicans' executive director under Abramoff was Grover Norquist, later a conservative activist who helped Newt Gingrich engineer the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.
In 2001, Norquist arranged a meeting between President Bush and the chief of the Louisiana-based Coushatta Nation Indian tribe, an Abramoff client.
The Coushatta later sent a $25,000 check to the group that Norquist heads, Americans For Tax Reform.
A College Republicans intern under Abramoff was Ralph Reed, who became executive director of the Christian Coalition and is now a consultant.
Abramoff recruited Reed to organize a grass-roots effort to pressure the Texas attorney general's office to shut down Indian casinos in the state. Abramoff and Scanlon then turned around and persuaded one of the tribes, the Tigua of El Paso, to hire them to lobby to get the casinos reopened.
Reed, now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, worked in connection with Abramoff in a lawful and effective way, a spokeswoman said.
Abramoff took a notable break as a Washington power broker by dabbling in the 1980s in the movie business, producing the action film Red Scorpion, which featured U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting Soviet agents in Africa.
Congressman defends trips
DeLay and Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, were introduced in the early 1990s by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a Seattle-based talk show host who heads the nonprofit organization Toward Tradition, which seeks to further ties between observant Christians and Jews.
Abramoff used his relationship with DeLay to help one of his top clients, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, which was fighting an effort by congressional Democrats to strip the islands of their exemption from U.S. wages and immigration laws.
In December 1997, DeLay, his wife, Christine, and three aides traveled to the islands with Abramoff on a trip paid for by the U.S. territory's government and the Saipan Garment Manufacturer's Association.
During the trip, DeLay offered a toast calling Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends," according to a variety of news reports.
DeLay then helped win an extension of the islands' exemption from federal laws.
Also, DeLay took took two trips sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, to Russia in 1997 and Britain in 2000. The congressman has defended the trips as appropriate fact-finding tours.
But in both cases, the group got funding around the time of the trips from organizations with a stake in influencing DeLay on legislation. The contributions were solicited by Abramoff, a member of the NCPPR for several years until resigning last fall, Ridenour said.
"Jack has made some mistakes," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said, "but he is not the dishonest, malevolent, arrogant, wheeler-dealer that people are portraying. He is a fine man."
Others are less charitable.
Gary Ruskin, who heads the Congressional Accountability Project affiliated with Ralph Nader, said Abramoff stood out in a town filled with high-priced lobbyists.
"Jack Abramoff was a guy you could buy to make sure your policies happened," he said. "And his relationship to Tom DeLay was central to all of this."
Chronicle reporter Gebe Martinez contributed to this report.