Abramoff report reveals ties to GOP, Democratic members

The House Government Reform Committee report released late last week on the 400-plus communications between Bush administration officials and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his colleagues also provides new evidence of the extensive reach “Team Abramoff” maintained among lawmakers and aides from both parties.

Abramoff and lobbyists formerly working under him at Greenberg Traurig claimed meeting with 24 senators, 19 House members and more than 100 aides — at least 20 of them Democratic — on behalf of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, according to a summary released as part of supplementary evidence to the Government Reform report. Lawmakers’ names were all redacted by committee staff, but aides’ names were released and represent Democratic as well as Republican members.

The Government Reform panel conducted its inquiry as part of its executive-branch oversight duties, and the bulk of its 93-page report focuses on attempts by Abramoff and his lobbying team to leverage their White House contacts, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and now-GOP national chairman Ken Mehlman, for a variety of favors.

But in the Saginaw Chippewa work summary, provided to the committee by the lobbying firm, Abramoff and his colleagues touted their skills at securing federal appropriations for roads, a school and a crime-prevention center for the Chippewas, who took in a significant income from their Soaring Eagle casino.

The lobbyists also played up their thwarting of neighboring tribes’ efforts to open casinos that “not only threaten the Tribe’s market share, but challenge the long-respected procedures for putting land into trust and establishing a casino operation on tribal lands.”

Among the victories Abramoff’s team claimed was securing an objection by now-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to a bill by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that would have allowed another Michigan tribe to open a casino potentially harmful to the Chippewas’ gambling operation. When Stabenow moved to pass her bill by unanimous consent, the summary states, “we were successful in obtaining an objection … and thereby were able to defeat the proposal for the year.”

Reid has consistently opposed expansion of casinos off existing Indian reservations, and he registered his objection on Nov. 19, 2002, on those grounds. “The land claim is simply – and everyone knows this – an excuse to take land into trust for off-reservation gaming,” Reid said then on the floor.

“[Reid’s] opposition to the Bay Mills casino was based on this longstanding policy position [against off-reservation casinos], not on the views of lobbyists,” spokesman Jim Manley said in an e-mail. “It is now well-known that Abramoff and his associates exaggerated their influence.”

Stabenow spokeswoman Angela Benander said that any actions taken on behalf of the Bay Mills tribe or Chippewas were done to support the senator’s constituents and with the support of other Michigan lawmakers.

The majority of the aides with whom Abramoff and his colleagues met were Republican, including several from the GOP’s two campaign committees. Abramoff achieved “Pioneer” status in 2004 for raising at least $100,000 to aid President Bush’s reelection.

The Democratic aides taking meetings with Abramoff’s team, according to the work summary, represented Reid, Stabenow, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), among others.

The lobbyists also reported meeting with Debbie Dingell, wife of the House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member and an influential lobbyist in her own right, as well as representatives for the centrist New Democratic Network and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Both Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Waxman, in their public comments following the report’s release, noted that they based their inquiry on potentially exaggerated information the Abramoff lobbyists provided to their employer.

“The documents we are releasing are authentic, but that does not mean that Mr. Abramoff or his associates are telling the truth,” Waxman said Thursday, calling for further investigation into the executive-branch lobbying in the report.

Some on Capitol Hill have speculated that the Government Reform report, though overshadowed during the weekend by reports of the unfolding scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), could add new potency to Democratic charges that the GOP has fallen victim to a “culture of corruption” that has its roots in the Bush White House.

But since Abramoff registered his guilty plea in January, incumbent Republican ties to his crimes have become a central campaign issue for only a handful of Democratic challengers, including Montana state Sen. Jon Tester (D), who opened a seven-point lead over Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in a poll released this week. Burns had come under fire for helping the Chippewas win some appropriations.

Abramoff’s largesse to Democrats, underscored by the work summary, remains a potent counterargument for Republicans. When Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), running a close race against incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), sought to link DeWine to Abramoff and other ethically challenged Republicans during their debate on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, host Tim Russert pointed out that about one-third of Abramoff clients’ political donations went to Democrats.

“Maybe it did, but it didn’t go to me,” Brown replied, pivoting to criticism of DeWine’s vote in favor of the Medicare prescription drug benefit.