The Magazine

The Friends of Jack Abramoff

They're not all Republicans.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"THIS IS A REPUBLICAN scandal," Harry Reid, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace in December. Wallace had asked Reid about his relationship with Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who last week pleaded guilty, in two separate investigations, to five counts of mail fraud, tax evasion, wire fraud, and conspiracy. Reid said there was no relationship. "Abramoff gave me no money," he said. "So don't lump me in with Jack Abramoff."

Reid might not have taken money directly from Abramoff, a lifelong Republican and conservative activist, but he did accept donations--some $66,000 worth--from Abramoff's clients, Indian tribes operating casinos throughout the United States. And Reid's willingness to do so, and his reluctance to return the Abramoff-related funds, as many of his Republican colleagues have done, suggests that Washington's latest lobbying scandal may be more complex than partisans have let on, and more difficult for Democrats to make partisan hay out of than pundits now think. Consider another example.

On February 2, 2002, Abramoff wrote an email to his lobbying partner Michael Scanlon. "I'm on the phone with Tigua! Fire up the jet, baby, we're going to El Paso."

"I want all their MONEY!!!" Scanlon replied.

Until the previous month, the Tigua tribe had operated the Speaking Rock casino in El Paso, which a Texas District Court, adjudicating a suit brought against the tribe by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn--now a U.S. senator--had declared illegal. Abramoff, Scanlon, and Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, had worked behind the scenes on behalf of another tribe, the Louisiana Coushattas, to make sure that the Tigua casino stayed closed. They were successful.

But Abramoff and Scanlon were also greedy. Now that the Tigua were out of luck, they reasoned, wouldn't the tribe want to see their casino reopened? And wouldn't they want, further, to hire influence peddlers to petition the government on their behalf? Most important, wouldn't they pay those influence peddlers a whole lot of money to do so? The answer to all three questions was yes.

Abramoff approached the Tigua and told them that he could use his connections in the federal government to the tribe's advantage. He also said that his representation would cost nothing; only if he were successful would he ask the tribe to consider putting him on retainer. But Abramoff's representation would not be enough. The Tigua would also need to hire an expert in "grassroots" politics. He had someone in mind--his silent partner Scanlon. Abramoff "explained to us that Mr. Scanlon was the 'preeminent expert in grassroots politics,'" recalled Marc Schwartz, a Tigua representative, in a 2004 hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. What's more, Schwartz testified, thanks to Scanlon's "experience with Representative Tom DeLay," for whom he had served as spokesman, Scanlon "had developed a reputation as the, quote, 'go-to guy' for the most difficult campaigns."

Scanlon's program, "Operation Open Doors," came at a price: $4.2 million. What the Tigua did not know was that Scanlon planned all along to send half that amount back to Abramoff in the form of a $2.1 million check to Kay Gold LLC., an Abramoff front. The two friends called this arrangement "Gimme Five."

"As you know," Scanlon wrote in a January 9, 2003, after-action report to Schwartz, his tribal contact, "the election reform bill was targeted as the vehicle for the necessary legislative language needed to reopen the Speaking Rock Casino." This was because the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a grab-bag election reform bill also known as HAVA, was a sure legislative bet: It was due to pass Congress quickly, and the president would almost certainly sign it. "Fortunately," Scanlon continued, "Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH), with whom we have good relations and a solid working arrangement, was managing the House process." But at that time Democrats controlled the Senate, which meant that Scanlon's work had to be bipartisan. "Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT)," he wrote, "managed the Senate."

Schwartz told Sen. John McCain in November 2004 that he recalled "an agreement between Mr. Abramoff and Senator Dodd early in the process. And Representative Ney came on the scene somewhat later." Schwartz's testimony jibes with the contents of an April 12, 2002, memo Scanlon sent to his tribal contacts, in which he wrote that "we have Senate support," but that "they are looking for political cover."