Thursday, January 19, 2006

White House Still Won't Discuss Details Of Abramoff Meetings

The White House won't reveal the details of Jack Abramoff's meetings with White House officials, including Preznit Bush, over the last five years. Here is the story, in full, from Knight-Ridder:

WASHINGTON - For the second straight day, the White House refused Wednesday to say who among its staffers met with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff or whom the recently convicted felon was representing when he visited the executive mansion.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, pressed to explain Abramoff's contacts with the Bush administration, said, "We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition" in the media.

"I know there's some that want to do that, but I don't see any reason to do so," McClellan said. "Well, I think that some people (are) insinuating things based on no evidence whatsoever."

Several government ethics groups found the White House stance perplexing, saying nothing prevents the administration from disclosing the identities of meeting participants.

"There's a feeding frenzy for transparency and disclosure on Capitol Hill, and that's not a good way to start," said Roberta Baskin, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group. "You can't plead national security. The public has a right to know."

Abramoff was a high-flying Washington lobbyist and a huge contributor to Republican political campaigns until he pleaded guilty before a federal judge on Jan. 3 to one charge each of conspiracy to corrupt public officials, mail fraud and tax evasion. He gave only to fellow Republicans, but his clients contributed large donations to Republicans and Democrats.

He's now cooperating with prosecutors investigating corruption on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration, and Republicans worry that public outrage over the spreading scandal could cost them control of Congress in November's elections.

Following Abramoff's guilty plea, lawmakers from both parties rushed to distance themselves from him and unload contributions from him. The Bush-Cheney campaign donated $6,000 that it had received from Abramoff to the American Heart Association, though it's keeping more than $100,000 that he raised for the campaign from other donors.

Other than acknowledging that Abramoff attended Hanukkah receptions at the White House in 2001 and 2002, McClellan has refused to say how many other times the lobbyist has visited. While photos of guests shaking hands with the president at such events are routine, McClellan has ducked whether there are any pictures of Bush with Abramoff, saying only that he'd look into the question.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Abramoff and his associates had nearly 200 contacts with the White House during Bush's first 10 months in office.

"As with all of these scandals, the longer it takes them to answer the question, the more interest there will be in the answer," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group. "Answer the question and put the questions to rest."

As the Knight-Ridder articles notes, we do know that disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his lobbying team had almost 200 contacts with Bush administration officials in the first ten months of the administration back in 2001. The Associated Press also reported that Abramoff was in contact with George W. Bush as far back as 1997 and has worked very closely with administration officials as high up as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles. Here are the dirty details:

WASHINGTON (AP) — In President Bush's first 10 months, GOP fundraiser Jack Abramoff and his lobbying team logged nearly 200 contacts with the new administration as they pressed for friendly hires at federal agencies and sought to keep the Northern Mariana Islands exempt from the minimum wage and other laws, records show.

The meetings between Abramoff's lobbying team and the administration ranged from Attorney General John Ashcroft to policy advisers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, according to his lobbying firm billing records.

Abramoff, a $100,000-plus fundraiser for Bush, is now under criminal investigation for some of his lobbying work. His firm boasted its lobbying team helped revise a section of the Republican Party's 2000 platform to make it favorable to its island client.

In addition, two of Abramoff's lobbying colleagues on the Marianas won political appointments inside federal agencies.

"Our standing with the new administration promises to be solid as several friends of the CNMI (islands) will soon be taking high-ranking positions in the Administration, including within the Interior Department," Abramoff wrote in a January 2001 letter in which he persuaded the island government to follow him as a client to his new lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.

The reception Abramoff's team received from the Bush administration was in stark contrast to the chilly relations of the Clinton years. Abramoff, then at the Preston Gates firm, scored few meetings with Clinton aides and the lobbyist and the islands vehemently opposed White House attempts to extend U.S. labor laws to the territory's clothing factories.

The records from Abramoff's firm, obtained by The Associated Press from the Marianas under an open records request, chronicle Abramoff's careful cultivation of relations with Bush's political team as far back as 1997.

In that year, Abramoff charged the Marianas for getting then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to write a letter expressing support for the Pacific territory's school choice proposal, his billing records show.

"I hope you will keep my office informed on the progress of this initiative," Bush wrote in a July 18, 1997, letter praising the islands' school plan and copying in an Abramoff deputy.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Thursday that Bush didn't consider Abramoff a friend. "They may have met on occasion, but the president does not know him," she said.


The documents show his team also had extensive access to Bush administration officials, meeting with Cheney policy advisers Ron Christie and Stephen Ruhlen, Ashcroft at the Justice Department, White House intergovernmental affairs chief Ruben Barrales, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles and others.

Most of the contacts were handled by Abramoff's subordinates, who then reported back to him on the meetings. Abramoff met several times personally with top Interior officials, whose Office of Insular Affairs oversees the Mariana Islands and other U.S. territories.

In all, the records show at least 195 contacts between Abramoff's Marianas lobbying team and the Bush administration from February through November 2001.

At least two people who worked on Abramoff's team at Preston Gates wound up with Bush administration jobs: Patrick Pizzella, named an assistant secretary of labor by Bush; and David Safavian, chosen by Bush to oversee federal procurement policy in the Office of Management and Budget.

"We have worked with WH Office of Presidential Personnel to ensure that CNMI-relevant positions at various agencies are not awarded to enemies of CNMI," Abramoff's team wrote the Marianas in an October 2001 report on its work for the year.

Abramoff's team didn't neglect party politics either: There were at least two meetings with Republican National Committee officials, including then-finance chief Jack Oliver, as well as attendance at GOP fundraisers.

In 2000, Abramoff and his team were connected enough to both political parties to boast of obtaining early drafts of the platforms each adopted at its presidential nominating convention.

"In the case of the Republican platform, the team reviewed and commented on sections dealing with insular territories to ensure appropriately positive treatment. This was successful," the Preston Gates firm wrote to Marianas.

"In the case of the Democratic Party platform, the team assisted in drafting early versions of neutral language relating to the territories," the firm wrote. "However, heavy intervention by the White House eventually deleted positive references to the CNMI."

The access of Abramoff and his team to the administration came as the lobbyist was establishing himself as a GOP fundraiser.

Abramoff and his wife each gave $5,000 to Bush's 2000 recount fund and the maximum $1,000 to his 2000 campaign. By mid-2003, Abramoff had raised at least $100,000 for Bush's re-election campaign, becoming one of Bush's famed "pioneers."

Money also flowed from the Marianas to Bush's re-election campaign: It took in at least $36,000 from island donors, much of it from members of the Tan family, whose clothing factories were a routine stop for lawmakers and their aides visiting the islands on Abramoff-organized trips.

Two Tan family companies gave $25,000 each to the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2002 elections. Greenberg Traurig, too, was a big GOP giver. Its donations included $20,000 to the Republican National Committee for the 2000 elections and $25,000 each to the GOP's House and Senate fundraising committees in 2000 and again in 2002.

The Marianas' lobbying paid off — it fended off proposals in 2001 to extend the U.S. minimum wage to island workers and gained at least $2 million more in federal aid from the administration.

Abramoff's team bragged to the cash-strapped Marianas government that the taxpayer money would cover its lobbying bill: "We believe that this additional funding — along with other funds we expect to secure by the end of the year — will make clear to even our biggest critics that we pay for ourselves," Abramoff teammate Kevin Ring wrote in October 2001, copying in Abramoff.

We know that Preznit Bush met personally with Jack Abramoff and some of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients on May 9, 2001 in the Oval Office. Abramoff charged his clients $25,000 each for the Oval Office"face time" with the preznit. The story, along with a copy of the check, is here. We also know that Jack Abramoff's former assistant, Susan Ralston, is now deputy chief of staff Karl Rove's top aide. Ralston was given the White House job at the behest of Abramoff.

There are a lot of details surrounding the connections between the White House and Jack Abramoff that are not known. These details are not known because the White House is stonewalling members of the press and engaging in diversionary tactics and fingerpointing.

What is known about the contacts between Abramoff and the White House, however, should raise enough concern that a formal investigation needs to be conducted. The White House needs to come clean on this issue and stonewalling the press or letting out little parts of the story bit by bit will only make the problem in the White House, if there is one, worse in the long run.

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