It’s funny how shit keeps a bubblin’ up. The Bush administration is like a plumbing disaster these days. And all those leaky pipes are connected to each other. Which brings me to indicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Back before his name was coffee break conversation, in the beginning of Senator McCain’s not-yet-newsworthy Indian Affairs Committee investigation, I was doing a little investigating of my own–of Indian gaming casinos then being proposed around San Francisco Bay. I happened on McCain’s committee web site and the reams of emails between Abramoff and his associate Mike Scanlon that were posted there. Definitely eyebrow-raising stuff for anyone not acquainted with the down and dirty of Washington Lobbyland and insider politics in general.
I wanted to know who was behind the billion-dollar casino schemes in California and, besides noting the staggering amount of money involved in these deals, didn’t have much use for the Abramoff angle. But I saved my notes. A Sept. 28, 2004 Washington Post article by R. Jeffrey Smith was most helpful. Smith looked at tax and spending records of an Abramoff “charity”, the Capital Athletic Foundation
Not unlike the Mafia in its heyday, Abramoff was obviously having some difficulty finding enough places to launder all the money that was rolling in from Indian tribes. One washing machine was the Capital Athletic Foundation, a bogus charity dedicated to supporting youth sports. Another laundry chute was a private school that Abramoff started and which his own sons attended. The school offered excellence in academics and sports, emphasis on the latter. According to the Post article, the school, which received close to $2 million from the Capital Athletic Foundation, bought–hang onto your eyebrows–TWO Zamboni ice-cleaning machines, even though it did not have a hockey rink. (We’re talking maybe $20k each?? Somebody into ice hockey help me out here).
Abramoff had a gift for creative fundraising too. One, reported by Lou Dubose in the Texas Observer was a proposal by Abramoff to a tribal council in Texas to pay the premiums of “term life” insurance policies for all the tribe’s elderly members. Upon their death, however, the payout would go to Abramoff’s private school. The school would then pay Abramoff’s fees at then-employer, Greenberg Traurig, a Washington lobbying firm. This is how he proposed that the tribe, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe of El Paso, pay for his services helping them snare a lucrative casino deal.
The long arm of Washington lobbying reached California too. A Dec. 26, 2004 Post article by Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum noted that the Agua Caliente tribe (big casino, southern California), paid Greenberg Traurig as much as $20,000 a month in lobbyists’ expenses, much of it for meals at Signatures, the restaurant that, until recently, was owned by Abramoff and served as yet another laundry drop for his fees as well as a schmooze spot for Washington politicos and benefactors whose meals were often free, quid pro quo understood. Ultimately, the tribes paid the bills.
Even more interesting was Abramoff’s connection to Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform. According to Thomas B. Edsall, in a Nov. 8, 2004 Washington Postarticle, one tribe,
…began contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Americans for Tax Reform and similar groups. Norquist won’t disclose how much, but Abramoff told the Wall Street Journal in 2000 that the Choctaw have given “several million dollars” to outside groups, and that Americans for Tax Reform was a leading recipient.
It makes sense if you know that Abramoff was president of the College Republican national committee during the time Norquist was its executive director. Writes Edsall in the Post article,
While at the College Republicans, Abramoff, Norquist and Reed [Ralph Reed was a CR intern] quickly earned reputations as zealots. Abramoff wrote in the 1983 annual report: “It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the Left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently. The group’s recruits were required to memorize a speech that included the lines: “Democrats are the enemy. Wade into them! Spill their blood!”
But, back to food and fundraising… An amusing note in E.J. Kessler’s June 27, 2003 column in The Forward, described how Abramoff’s culinary enterprises aided one Republican, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia. According to Kessler, “The $500-a-plate fundraiser, a ‘sandwich naming party’ at which Cantor was honored with an eponymous roast-beef-on-challah sandwich, was held at Stacks Deli…” which was then owned by Abramoff. Mr. Roast Beef Sandwich failed to disclose the fundraiser as an “in kind” campaign contribution until five months later (law requires disclosure within 60 days). The quid pro quo? Cantor’s signature on a letter to Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, that argued for a ruling that would benefit the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, an Abramoff client. Other signers of the letter? Tom Delay, Dennis Hastert, and Roy Blunt.
And just so this makes a little more sense, the goose laying the golden eggs in this Republican fairy tale is Indian gaming revenues in excess of $16 billion yearly.