The White House and Mr. Abramoff
Monday 09 October 2006
The sordid Mark Foley controversy has diverted public attention from another major Washington ethics scandal - the influence peddling involving the disgraced former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. That's good news for the Bush administration, given freshly heightened suspicion that its dealings with Mr. Abramoff and his sleazy K Street operation were far cozier than it is willing to admit.
The White House has consistently played down the ties key officials like Karl Rove had with Mr. Abramoff, who pleaded guilty last January to conspiring to bribe public officials. But the administration has declined to publicly provide detailed answers or grant full access to relevant documents needed to establish the truth.
A newly released report, prepared with unusual bipartisan backing by the House Government Reform Committee, paints a different reality. It reveals that between January 2001 and March 2004, Mr. Abramoff and members of his staff had some 485 contacts with key White House officials, including at least 10 direct contacts between Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Rove. Billing records and e-mail messages unearthed by the committee indicate that Mr. Abramoff and his colleagues spent nearly $25,000 on meals and tickets for White House officials.
The report belies Mr. Rove's description of Mr. Abramoff as merely a "casual acquaintance." An assistant to Mr. Rove, Susan Ralston, who resigned on Friday, had formerly worked for Mr. Abramoff. The report suggests that she sought Mr. Abramoff's help to obtain seats for Mr. Rove and his aides at popular sporting events, and often acted as a conduit, passing messages between the lobbyist and top White House officials, including Mr. Rove and Ken Mehlman, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee who was then a senior White House political strategist.
Indeed, it appears that Mr. Rove sat with Mr. Abramoff in the lobbyist's box seats for an N.C.A.A. basketball playoff game in 2002, an occasion Mr. Abramoff memorialized in an e-mail message to a colleague. "Told me anytime we need something just let him know through Susan."
It is plain that Mr. Abramoff had unusual access. As for his effectiveness, Mr. Abramoff rated the results as "mixed." But he scored some important victories. In 2002, for example, the administration made the unusual decision to release $16.3 million to a Mississippi tribe Mr. Abramoff represented, notwithstanding the Justice Department's opposition to the project. The role campaign gifts and contacts between Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Mehlman may have played in this action is a matter warranting close scrutiny by prosecutors, and further digging by the committee.
As Tom Davis of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat, take pains to note, their report is based on documents that were provided under subpoena by Mr. Abramoff's firm and, for the most part, tell just one side of the story. The White House spin is that Mr. Abramoff had a well-known affinity for exaggerating the impact of his lobbying efforts. If so, full disclosure of relevant records by the White House could help support that claim. Meanwhile, the idea that Mr. Abramoff exerted no influence with the administration seems about as believable as Mark Foley's early claim that his only interest in 16-year-old pages was "mentoring."