By Kevin Bogardus and Mike Soraghan - 12/05/07 08:13 PM EST
Jack Abramoff called her the Wicked Witch of the West. “WWW” for short in his e-mails. And he wanted to burn her.
Joan Plaisted, a career foreign service officer, was ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in 1998, when the island nation hired Abramoff and his firm to battle the United States on a multibillion-dollar aid agreement.
“She’s a disgrace to the United States government,” Abramoff declared, according to an attendee. “And I’m going to do something about it.”
That started a remarkable lobbying campaign to persuade members of Congress to discredit a U.S. diplomat by way of speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Foreign service experts said it would have been an unprecedented public attack on a diplomat serving overseas. The campaign was ultimately scuttled when the republic’s president, Imata Kabua, canceled a 1999 visit that was to coincide with the denunciations.
But the hard charge at Plaisted wasn’t the only way Abramoff’s work for RMI pushed the lobbying envelope.
More than 40 pages of e-mails obtained by The Hill and documents filed by the firm with the Justice Department showcase the emerging take-no-prisoners style that would later land Abramoff in prison and help end Republican control of Congress.
Abramoff planned lavish trips for lawmakers, designated the plush confines of stadium skyboxes as a place to pair up clients with powerful legislators and worked to marry the causes of his eclectic list of clients to the burgeoning anti-tax movement led by activist Grover Norquist.
The e-mails also reveal an early relationship with Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) — who has denied any involvement with Abramoff and is now under scrutiny for several non-Abramoff-related matters — along with a tendency to drop the name of then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose relationship to Abramoff remains under investigation.
Another parallel with Abramoff’s more famous Indian casino campaigns: federal investigators. In a brief interview, Abramoff attorney Abbe Lowell said his client has talked to investigators about his RMI lobbying work.
“Mr. Abramoff has discussed all of his dealings with his former clients, including his clients in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with the Department of Justice and is continuing to provide answers to DoJ officials,” Lowell said.
Beyond that, Lowell declined to comment. Abramoff is serving six years in jail and has pleaded guilty to defrauding casino tribes and conspiring to bribe a congressman. He is cooperating with the ongoing federal investigation.
HIRED TO LOOSEN STRINGS
Back then, Abramoff was not even “famous for D.C.” He was an up-and-coming lobbyist close to House Republicans.
Abramoff’s better-known work in the Pacific was for the U.S. territory situated nearby, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which hired him to lobby on labor issues.
The pacific island nation’s Bikini Atoll is where the U.S. tested the atomic bomb after World War II. RMI’s Kwajalein Atoll is a launch site for national missile defense tests.
RMI hired Abramoff in early 1999, paying him $425 an hour to loosen the strings the Clinton administration wanted to place on foreign aid the federal government sends to RMI.
Abramoff was the lead partner on the contract for the law and lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, and his strategy was to attack Plaisted, who was pressing a hard line in negotiations over renewal of RMI’s agreement with the U.S., demanding more control over how RMI spent its aid dollars.
Throughout 1999, Abramoff engineered a media blitz to discredit Plaisted. Abramoff’s underlings sifted through prior statements and actions to find Plaisted’s “mishaps and inappropriate behavior.” That information was developed into speeches for House Republicans to deliver on the House floor.
“Any idea who we want to go to the floor to attack her — [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher [R-Calif.]?” fellow Preston Gates lobbyist Shawn Vasell wrote to Abramoff in an e-mail dated July 9, 1999. In a follow-up, Abramoff wrote, “We will likely need to line up Dana to deliver anti-Plaisted speech.”
Abramoff listed this as “top priority.” According to Abramoff’s e-mails, at least one lawmaker committed to deliver one of the speeches: former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.).
Vasell and Abramoff bandied about several other names, including Young, the late Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and then-Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who would later become chairman of the House Resources Committee.
The speeches were to be timed to coincide with the September 1999 visit of then-RMI President Kabua. The plan, as laid out in Abramoff’s e-mail exchanges, was that video clips of members “tak[ing] the floor in outrage” would be broadcast on television back in RMI to undermine support for Plaisted’s position.
Abramoff and his team, according to e-mails, planned to discuss the timing of the speeches with Tony Rudy, then deputy chief of staff to DeLay.
But the blitz never materialized. RMI’s Washington embassy canceled the presidential visit.
Much of Abramoff’s lobbying was coordinated with Tony de Brum, then RMI’s finance minister, according to e-mails between de Brum and Abramoff. De Brum, now a member of the RMI parliament, said Abramoff introduced him to Young, DeLay and others on trips to Washington. It was de Brum who attended the Waikiki dinner where Abramoff called Plaisted a disgrace.
De Brum said in an interview with The Hill that he and other RMI officials wanted Abramoff and Preston Gates to give them a leg up in negotiation, not to get Plaisted fired or denounced on the House floor. That, he said, was Abramoff’s idea.
“It was not an assignment that was given to the firm. No one asked him to go after her,” said de Brum.
Had the campaign occurred, it would have been an unprecedented assault on a diplomat serving overseas, said retired foreign service officer Tex Harris.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Harris, a board member and former president of the American Foreign Service Association.
“You have a foreign government agent using his influence on the floor of Congress on behalf of a foreign power.
“This is the evil genius of Abramoff,” he said.
The e-mails obtained by The Hill were submitted by Preston Gates to the Senate Finance Committee, which investigated Abramoff.
Separately, the e-mails were posted to the Web anonymously by an individual who wanted to highlight de Brum’s ties to the lobbyist and opposes him politically.
‘NO RECOLLECTION’ OF MEETING ABRAMOFF
Many of the lawmakers Abramoff’s team contacted for the RMI lobbying campaign — DeLay, Rohrabacher and Young, among others — were on the receiving end of contributions from Abramoff or the firm’s political action committee (PAC) throughout 1999.
Young spokeswoman Meredith Kenny said the Alaska Republican “has no recollection of ever meeting Mr. Abramoff.”
A spokeswoman for Rohrabacher said he had no recollection of Abramoff requesting he give a speech. Attempts to reach Scarborough through MSNBC, where he now hosts a television program, were unsuccessful.
DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said, “All of Mr. DeLay’s legislative actions in Congress were based on sound public policy and protecting conservative principles.”
Preston Gates has been merged into a new firm called K&L Gates, where a spokeswoman declined to comment on the lobbying campaign, citing client confidentiality. Vasell, Abramoff’s former colleague, did not return messages seeking comment.
Plaisted declined to comment. Her tenure as ambassador to RMI ended in 2001.
The RMI embassy, contacted recently, said it had no idea Abramoff had planned to politically attack a sitting U.S. ambassador.
“The embassy was unaware of this plan, and would have objected strenuously if it had been aware,” said the RMI embassy in response to a list of questions.
The disagreement between RMI and Preston Gates wound up in court. When a new RMI administration came to power in 2000, it reviewed its predecessors’ contracts. RMI’s new officeholders decided not to pay Abramoff and Preston Gates.
The embassy said it “was unable to determine what if anything had been done by the firm due to a lack of records at both the embassy and in Marshall Islands.”
Preston Gates sued for more than $430,000. The RMI embassy said it settled for $250,000.
FUN AND FUNDRAISING
While he had plans to make life miserable for Plaisted, Abramoff’s RMI strategy called for devising new ways to combine fun, fundraising events and policymaking to benefit his client. In the e-mails, Abramoff and his team discussed holding fundraisers during Kabua’s planned state visit.
First was a fundraiser at a Sept. 12, 1999, Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game to be held for DeLay and Young. DeLay, according to e-mails within Abramoff’s team, had agreed to attend, but Young was not planning on showing up.
At the time, Abramoff and his fellow Preston Gates lobbyists were contacting DeLay about RMI legislation. Foreign lobbying records show they contacted Rudy, DeLay’s deputy chief of staff, at least 16 times throughout 1999.
Rudy would later become a lobbyist and worked with Abramoff at another firm, Greenberg Traurig. He has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is cooperating with federal investigators. Messages left for Rudy were not returned.
Abramoff was attempting to get RMI officials on a fishing charter with members of Congress the day before the Redskins game. His associates were trying to charter boats for up to 30 people out of Annapolis.
Such a trip would cost roughly $3,000, according to one Annapolis fishing charter company contacted by The Hill.
Kabua, the RMI president, was to attend and the event was to be in his honor. E-mails indicate Abramoff also wanted to make the trip a fundraiser.
Involving a foreign head of state in a campaign event could raise serious legal questions. Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for the consumer watchdog Public Citizen, said foreign officials are “expressly prohibited” from raising funds for elections in the U.S.
Abramoff and his team seemed aware of the problem, and were seeking ways around it, according to the e-mails.
“It does not have to be hosted by Kabua,” Abramoff wrote. “I can make a contribution to a PAC if they want.”
TAPPING THE CONSERVATIVE NETWORK
The planning for Kabua’s visit to the U.S. underscores Abramoff’s confidence in his ability to pull the levers of Washington’s conservative policy machinery, even though his client and his cause were previously identified with a liberal agenda.
“Do we have a conservative/think tanker’s dinner[?] How about contacting Heritage and allowing them to host it in their boardroom[?]” Abramoff asked his team in an e-mail. A meeting was scheduled between Kabua and the conservative Heritage Foundation. The think tank did not respond to requests for comment.
And Vasell promised RMI officials that an “an op-ed placed by a conservative journalist will appear in The Washington Times critical of Ambassador Plaisted and the U.S. State Department.” The team also pledged to set up a meeting between Kabua and the newspaper’s editorial board. A spokesman for the newspaper did not return messages seeking comment.
When one of his associates proposed having Norquist and the RMI president appear at a forum together, Abramoff quickly fired off a bolder plan.
“Replace this with Grover giving him a taxpayer award of some sort,” Abramoff wrote.
At the time, Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), was rapidly becoming a key cog in Washington’s conservative movement.
ATR spokesman John Kartch stressed that Norquist’s organization never did give the RMI president an award, pointing to ATR’s list of honorees for the two types of awards it gives.
“Looking at this list, I do not see an indication that a ‘Kabua Imata’ has received
either award,” Kartch said.
PLANNING A CODEL
Though Kabua’s visit was canceled, Abramoff and Preston Gates did plan one successful trip — one where members of Congress traveled to the RMI on official business.
At least, that’s what Preston Gates has contended in legal documents and its foreign lobbying disclosure documents filed with the Justice Department.
The firm’s account has been challenged by the RMI embassy, and by Young, then chairman of the House Resources Committee, who officially led the congressional delegation (codel) trip. It would be unusual and possibly unethical for a lobbying firm to plan a codel. Meredith Kenny, Young’s spokeswoman, said it just didn’t happen.
“I cannot speak to anything Preston Gates has claimed to do,” said Kenny. “The codel was planned by [House Resources Committee] staff. What Preston Gates planned for their clients is a matter between them and their clients.”
De Brum said Abramoff first suggested a codel to the RMI to him, saying he helped organize the trip for his RMI clients.
“He did produce a trip, they did come out, and as far as I am concerned, he delivered on his promise,” said de Brum.
The trip also included Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) as well as Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who is under investigation for his ties to Abramoff.
Letting lobbyists plan an official government trip is a “brazen violation” of accepted practices for taxpayer-funded travel, said Public Citizen’s Holman.
“To have a lobbying firm organize and plan a codel, and then have the trip paid for by the government, is the same as having taxpayers foot the bill for Abramoff’s lobbying business,” he said.
Accounts of the trip have also drawn some snickers, because Young showed up in Bermuda shorts. De Brum said it raised eyebrows when Young addressed the country’s parliament with his bare knees exposed.
“We have a dress code in parliament,” de Brum said. “We need to wear a tie. It was an issue [of] whether or not it was proper.”
Young has denied wearing shorts to the parliament. But a photograph that ran on the front page of The Marshall Islands Journal has Young deplaning in shorts. De Brum remembers leaving directly from the airport with Young to address the parliament.
Abramoff’s work for the island nation wasn’t just about trips. Abramoff worked on a bill to name the U.S. Army missile range at Kwajalein Atoll after former President Ronald Reagan.
The sponsor of the bill was Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), with Young and then-Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) as original co-sponsors. Preston Gates’s foreign lobbying records indicate the firm’s lobbyists contacted Bartlett’s legislative director and other staff several times before it was introduced.
The firm was to “coordinate efforts” with The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, an offshoot of Norquist’s ATR, according to lobbying records. Preston Gates also helped distribute a Legacy Project press release on the issue.
De Brum said it was Abramoff’s idea to rename the test site. Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright said Bartlett introduced the bill because of the ATR campaign to name things after Reagan, but didn’t work with Abramoff on the bill.
“I’m unaware of any connection to Jack Abramoff,” Wright said.
The bill did not move past House committee.
But RMI’s parliament beat Congress to the punch. While Bartlett’s bill stalled, RMI legislators voted to change the site’s name, which is now commonly known as the Reagan test site. The resolution’s passage was timed to Young’s codel.
The name change eventually became U.S. law after language was added to the 2001 defense authorization bill to do so.
By then, Abramoff and RMI had parted ways.