The Gimme-Five Game
By Massimo Calabresi
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At this stage, it's not easy to make Jack Abramoff's reputation worse. The Washington superlobbyist has been caught, in his e-mails, calling his Indian tribal clients "monkeys" and "morons."
It has been made clear, in congressional hearings, that he charged the tribes outlandish fees and got them to make donations that underwrote his lifestyle, his kids' education and the luxury travel of his favorite politician. But for those who were recipients of the largesse that Abramoff could afford with his clients' money, exposure is a frightening prospect.
House majority leader Tom DeLay, that luxury traveler, has already been burned by his association with Abramoff. The latest disclosures about the lobbyist's methods have dusted up two more Republican notables: antitax activist Grover Norquist and Christian conservative Ralph Reed. Their names came up in the thousands of e-mails released last week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is investigating Abramoff.
The fact that Abramoff-controlled tribal money found its way to the highest levels of conservative power in the country is making a lot of people in Washington nervous. "If you painted that money purple, there'd be a lot of purple pockets around town," says Senator Byron Dorgan, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The spreading scandal is a particular concern to Republicans in light of next year's midterm elections. Abramoff's name has become associated in Washington with more than just typical lobbying excess. He is an intimate of the self-described revolutionaries who took power on the Hill in 1994 on promises of cleaning house after decades of Democratic control and, as such, is seen as the personification of the Republican revolution gone awry. It doesn't help that the Indian tribal money that made Abramoff so influential around town came mostly from profits from gambling, which many conservatives view as immoral.
Some Republicans are even arguing that the party should distance itself from those tied too closely to Abramoff.
"If someone within your family is doing something that's certainly wrong, if not illegal, you have a duty to say, That's not us," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "That's what people are saying."
Last week's e-mail dump was the first detailed look the public has got into how Abramoff combined his top-tier connections with vast sums of money from his tribal clients to advance his interests. It shows how easy it is for seasoned operators to violate the spirit of the law -- possibly while staying within the letter of it -- as they peddle influence.
The correspondence also lays bare that, of the $7.7 million Abramoff and fellow lobbyist Michael Scanlon charged the Choctaw for projects in 2001, they spent $1.2 million for their efforts and split the rest in a scheme they called "gimme five."
Most of all, it shines a bright light into the dark places of Washington where money, politics and lobbyists meet.
Norquist, Abramoff and Reed first worked together in 1981 as members of the college Republicans organizing protests against communism in Poland. From there, the three rose steadily to the tops of their fields. Reed, as leader of the Christian Coalition, built a national grass-roots following of religious activists. Abramoff tapped into massive casino profits by representing newly rich tribes. And Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), established himself as the high priest of tax cuts.
According to the e-mail trail, Reed and Norquist contacted Abramoff separately in 1999 to say they wanted to do business.
Norquist complained about a "$75K hole in my budget from last year."
Reed, who left the Christian Coalition in 1997 to found a political consultancy, said he was counting on Abramoff "to help me with some contacts."
As it turned out, Abramoff needed them too. In 2000 Alabama was considering establishing a state lottery, which would compete with the casino business of the Mississippi band of Choctaws, an Abramoff client. Norquist and Reed were well positioned to help.
"ATR was opposed to a government-run lottery for the same reason we're opposed to government-run steel mills," Norquist told TIME. Reed publicly opposed gambling. It wouldn't do to have casino owners directly funding an antigambling campaign.
So Abramoff arranged for the Choctaws to give ATR $1.15 million in installments. Norquist agreed to pass the money on to the Alabama Christian Coalition and another Alabama antigambling group, both of which Reed was mobilizing for the fight against the lottery. Reed knew the real source of the money was the casino-rich Choctaws. The antigambling groups say they didn't.
On February 7, 2000, Abramoff warned Reed that the initial payment for antilottery radio spots and mailings would be less than Reed thought. "I need to give Grover something for helping, so the first transfer will be a bit lighter," Abramoff wrote.
The transfer was apparently lighter than even Abramoff expected. In a note to himself on February 22, Abramoff wrote, "Grover kept another $25K!"
Norquist says he had permission. He says a Choctaw representative -- he can't remember who -- instructed him on two occasions to keep $25,000 of the money for his group.
Abramoff's spokesman released a statement last week saying that with an investigation ongoing, "Mr. Abramoff is put into the impossible position of not being able to defend himself in the public arena until the proper authorities have had a chance to review all accusations."
Norquist says he believes the direction of the Indian Affairs Committee's probe is being driven by an old rivalry between him and the committee chairman, Republican Senator John McCain. "This is completely political," Norquist says.
McCain said last week's hearings sought to uncover fraud against the Choctaws, not investigate Norquist or Reed.
As for Reed, who is campaigning to become Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, he faces the wrath of his former Christian Coalition partners in Alabama. They say they feel tricked into working against the Alabama lottery on behalf of casino owners who saw it merely as competition.
Alabama coalition president John Giles says that the organization has begun an investigation and that Reed's lawyers are cooperating.
The Choctaws last week supported Reed's claim that none of the money paid to oppose the lottery came from gambling profits. Reed's Republican-primary opponent, state senator Casey Cagle, has made Reed's association with Abramoff a campaign issue.
"We were working to shut down a gambling casino, and I make no apologies," Reed told TIME in March.
What of the friendship among the three men? In 2002 Abramoff came to see Reed as competition and cut him off the Choctaw gravy train.
"He is a bad version of us! No more money for him," Abramoff wrote Scanlon.
Norquist was still standing by Abramoff last week, in a way.
"I've known Jack for a long time," he said. "He's never approached me for anything improper. But we have led very different lives over the last 20 years."
With reporting by Greg Fulton and Greg Land in Atlanta and Viveca Novak in Washington.
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