Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lawmakers Acted on Heels of Abramoff Gifts

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Folks, we know you've been waiting for another exciting episode of The Jack Abramoff Show! Tonight's Episode--The Gifts That Keep On Giving! This is from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - Nearly three dozen members of Congress, including leaders from both parties, pressed the government to block a Louisiana Indian tribe from opening a casino while the lawmakers collected large donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

Many intervened with letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton within days of receiving money from tribes represented by Abramoff or using the lobbyist's restaurant for fundraising, an Associated Press review of campaign records, IRS records and congressional correspondence found.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton

Lawmakers said their intervention had nothing to do with Abramoff, and the timing of donations was a coincidence. They said they wrote letters because they opposed the expansion of tribal gaming, even though they continued to accept donations from casino-operating tribes.

Many lived far from Louisiana and had no constituent interest in the casino dispute.

Now we know you've heard this story before about Abramoff giving football skybox seats, and golfing trips to Scotland as gifts, as well as gobs of green money to congressional leader's campaign accounts, in exchange for favorable legislation from Congress for his Indian tribe clients. Throw in a little embezzlement, and some musical checks to various Congressmen's campaign funds, and you've got a wonderful snapshot of how big time lobbying can corrupt and influence legislation. But tonight, we're going into the nitty-gritty of who got what from our ubber-lobbyist-extraordinaire. It's not pretty.

Are you ready? Here's those wonderful details you've been waiting for from Yahoo News:

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, held a fundraiser at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in Washington on June 3, 2003, that collected at least $21,500 for his Keep Our Majority political action committee from the lobbyist's firm and tribal clients.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert

Seven days later, Hastert wrote Norton urging her to reject the Jena tribe of Choctaw Indians' request for a new casino. Hastert's three top House deputies also signed the letter.

Approving the Jena application or others like it would "run counter to congressional intent," Hastert's June 10, 2003, letter warned Norton.

It was exactly what Abramoff's tribal clients wanted. The tribes, including the Louisiana Coushattas and Mississippi Choctaw, were trying to block the Jena's gambling hall for fear it would undercut business at their own casinos.

Yes, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is starting us off. Looks like he did a lot for Abramoff, spending his time at Abramoff's Singatures restaurant to raise $21,500 for Abramoff's indian clients. And he wrote a letter to Norton on behalf of Abramoff to reject another indian tribe's request to open a casino. Hey, if the Jena tribe opens a casino, then it would take away customers--and revenues--from the Coushattas and Choctaw's tribes casinos. Can't let that happen.

Continuing on:

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Norton on March 5, 2002, also signed by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The next day, the Coushattas issued a $5,000 check to Reid's tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund. A second Abramoff tribe sent another $5,000 to Reid's group. Reid ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations between 2001 and 2004.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid

Sen. John Ensign

In the midst of the congressional letter-writing campaign, the Bush administration rejected the Jena's casino on technical grounds. The tribe persisted, eventually winning Interior approval but the casino now is tied up in a court dispute.

Congressional ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in performing their official duties and accepting political money.

The two senators from Nevada also took part in Abramoff's letter writing campaign. It was just a coincidence that on March 5, 2002 Reid sent his letter to Norton, and then the next day, the Coushattas sent Reid a $5,000 check to Reid's Searchlight Leadership Fund. Of course, Reid also gets over $66,000 in donations from Abramoff. Is this a conflict of interest? Nah--it was just a coincidence.

But what this also says is that Abramoff was playing the field, on both sides of the political spectrum. Abramoff doesn't care as to who wrote his letters to Norton, requesting the Jena tribe's casino to be stomped out--he's willing to pay big bucks to both Democrats and Republicans, from both the Senate and the House. This is what sent Abramoff to the top of the lobbying food chain.

Shall we continue on?

The Abramoff donations dwarf those made by Keating. At least 33 lawmakers wrote letters to Norton and got more than $830,000 in Abramoff-related donations as the lobbying unfolded between 2001 and 2004, AP found.

"This is one of the largest examples we've had to date where congressional action was predicated on money being given for the action," said Kent Cooper, who reviewed lawmakers' campaign reports for two decades as the Federal Election Commission's chief of public disclosure.

Cooper, who now runs the Political Money Line Web site that tracks fundraising, said "the speed in which this money was turned around" after the letters makes the Abramoff matter more serious than previous controversies that tarnished Congress.

Lawmakers contacted by AP said their intervention had nothing to do with Abramoff's fundraising, and instead reflected their long-held concerns about tribal gaming expansion.

"There is absolutely no connection between the letter and the fundraising," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "The only connection was Senator Reid has consistently opposed any effort to undermine the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

I remember the Keating Five Scandal. After the deregulation of the banking industry in the 1980s, savings and loan associations were given the ability to invest their depositor's funds into risky commercial real estate ventures. As a result of this, Lincoln Savings and Loan collapsed. The chairman of Lincoln Savings, Charles H. Keating, provided campaign contributions of $1.3 million to five senators--Alan Cranston (D, CA), Dennis DeConcini (D, AZ), John Glenn (D, OH), John McCain (R, AZ), and Donald Riegle (D, MI)--in exchange for the senator's influence in discontinuing federal regulator's investigation into the Lincoln Savings and Loan collapse. Keating ended up being convicted of fraud, while Senators Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle were found to have interfered in the regulator's investigation and were censured by the Senate Ethic's Committee. Senator's Senators Glenn and McCain practically got off with a warning. And now we have another scandal--only this time with both senators and representatives--receiving large amounts of money in exchange for political favors. And the money is getting up there with $830,000 given by Abramoff to congressmen between 2001 to 2004. Let's also not forget that Abramoff was involved in selling an Oval Office meeting with President Bush to Gabon's President Omar Bongo for a cool $9 million (See New York Times Story).

Continuing on:

Hastert ultimately collected more than $100,000 in donations from Abramoff's firm and tribal clients between 2001 and 2004. His office said he never discussed the matter with Abramoff, but long opposed expanding Indian gambling off reservations and was asked to send the letter by Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.

Rep. Jim McCrery

McCrery sent his own letter as well, and collected more than $36,000 in Abramoff-connected donations.

So Hastert's got himself a nice little $100,000 amount from Abramoff. Hastert's office never discussed the indian tribe issues with Abramoff? So what was Hastert doing over at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant--playing bingo? Who asked Hastert to send McCrery's letter to Norton and why? Did Abramoff ask Hastert to send McCrery's letter? Of course, you know that McCrery could send his own letter to Norton. And McCrery did, while also collecting $36,000 from Abramoff.

But Hastert seems to have a little more trouble here:

Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Abramoff's fundraising influenced members of Congress or the Bush administration, and whether anyone tried to conceal their dealings with Abramoff. For instance:

Hastert failed for two years to disclose his use of Abramoff's restaurant the week before his letter or to reimburse for it as legally required. Hastert blames a paperwork oversight and recently corrected it.

This is called the "Dog Ate My Homework" defense.

Continuing on with The Gifts The Keep On Giving:

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., received $6,000 from Abramoff tribes from 1999 to 2001 and refunded it the day before he sent one of his letters to Norton in February 2002. He also used Abramoff's restaurant for a September 2003 fund-raiser but failed to reimburse for it until this year.

Sen. David Vitter

The Coushattas wrote two checks to Rep. Tom DeLay's groups in 2001 and 2002, shortly before the GOP leader wrote Norton. But the tribe was asked by Abramoff to take back the checks and route the money to other GOP groups. In all, DeLay, R-Texas, received at least $57,000 in Abramoff and tribal donations between 2001 and 2004.

Rep. Tom DeLay

We know you've been waiting for Tom DeLay--well, here he is! Of course, DeLay's got his own rockin' hit show spin-off, filled with exciting the drama of money laundering, musical judges, and tropical get-aways to visit the Mariannas' sweat-shops with his pal Abramoff. So it is not surprising that DeLay was also involved in the Norton letter writing campaign, picking up $57,000 from Abramoff.

Now, let's round out the rest of our guest stars:

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, received four donations totaling $5,500 from casino-operating tribes represented by Abramoff a month and a day after he signed the Feb. 27, 2002, group letter.

Rep. Pete Sessions

"If they want to give a contribution to support Republican candidates, more power to them. That doesn't mean we have to support what they are doing," said Guy Harrison, a Sessions spokesman.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., received $1,000 from Abramoff several weeks before he signed the group letter, then got $16,000 from two of Abramoff's casino-operating tribal clients about two months later. By year's end, Doolittle also had used Abramoff's restaurant to cater a campaign event and received another $15,000 from tribes.

Rep. John Doolittle

House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, signed three letters to Norton. He took $1,000 from Abramoff and $2,000 from the lobbyist's firm around the time he sent a May 2003 letter.

House Majority Leader Roy Blunt

Blunt long has opposed the expansion of tribal gaming and his letters are "consistent with his long-held position and are in no way related to political contributions," spokeswoman Burson Taylor said.

Yes, we're talking the same Roy Blunt who took over Tom DeLay's Majority Leader job after DeLay was indicted on money laundering charges. Blunt sent three letters to Norton, picking up $3,000 from Abramoff. A grand for writing each letter? Not bad. Of course, Blunt's got his own little troubles, considering he and DeLay have been playing the musical cash game, exchanging $150,000 from DeLay's Americans for a Political Majority PAC to Blunt's Rely on Your Beliefs PAC (See The New Republic Online). Of course, Blunt's letters to Norton were also not related to Abramoff's contributions.

Continuing on:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whose committee is investigating Abramoff, sent a letter on March 1, 2002, opposing the Jena casino. The letter said a company that operates casinos in Grassley's home state was concerned. Grassley got $1,000 from Abramoff's firm the following month and a total of $62,200 in related donation by 2004.

Sen. Charles Grassley

So Senator Grassley--who is the Senate Finance Committee Chairman and is currently investigating Abramoff--also sent a letter to Norton for $1,000, opposing the casino. And of course, Grassley got another $62,200 in related donations from from Abramoff. But that's okay. Because in no way, do these donations represent political influence by Abramoff. Do you detect a pattern here?

We're not finished yet:

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the former Senate GOP leader, wrote Norton on March 1, 2002, to "seriously urge" she reject the Jena casino. Lott received $10,000 in donations from Abramoff tribes just before the letter and $55,000 soon after. Lott's office said he sent the letter because his state's Choctaw tribe and a casino company were concerned about losing business.

Sen. Trent Lott

Then-Sen. John Breaux (news, bio, voting record), D-La., wrote Norton on March 1, 2002. Five days later the Coushattas sent $1,000 to his campaign and $10,000 to his library fund, tribal records show.

Then-Sen John Breaux

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., wrote Norton on June 14, 2001, one of the first such letters. Cochran's political committee got $6,000 from Abramoff tribes in the weeks before the letter, and another $71,000 in the three years after.

Sen. Thad Cochran

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who was engaged in a tight re-election race in 2002, sent her letter March 6, 2002. That same day, the Coushattas sent $2,000 to her campaign and she received $5,000 more by the end of that month. By year's end, the total had grown to at least $24,000.

Sen. Mary Landrieu

And there you have it! The Gifts That Keep On Giving! I knew that Abramoff was doing some serious lobbying, considering the previous posts I've written linking Abramoff with DeLay. But the scale and scope of this one operation--a letter writing campaign to Norton, requesting the Interior Department to block one indian tribe from opening a casino by two other tribes who already have casinos--is incredible. It reeks of how lobbying money is used to buy political favors. And it clearly shows the hypocrisy these congressmen have in claiming these donations do not influence their political and legislative decisions.

You've got to wonder what other political favors lobbyists are buying from our congressmen?

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