The e-mail messages of Jack Abramoff and his associates explicitly tie Sen. Conrad Burns and the RNC to bribery and corruption.
When Jack Abramoff’s lobbying team wanted to press Republican leaders for help with a tribal client, they minced no words. The help was deserved because Abramoff’s clients overwhelmingly donated to Republicans.
E-mails that have become important evidence in the Abramoff corruption probe state the lobbyist’s team bluntly discussed with a Republican Party official using large political donations as a way to pressure lawmakers and the administration into securing federal money for the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan.
Abramoff’s team ultimately prevailed in securing federal school building money for the Saginaw, overcoming opposition from a single Republican congressional aide and a federal agency along the way. And the lawmakers who helped get thousands of dollars in fresh donations.
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“The tribes that want this (not just ours) are the only guys who take care of the Rs,” Abramoff deputy Todd Boulanger wrote in a June 19, 2002, e-mail to Abramoff and his lobbying team, using “Rs” as shorthand for Republicans.
“We’re going to seriously reconsider our priorities in the current lists I’m drafting right now if our friends don’t weigh in with some juice. If leadership isn’t going to cash in a chit for (easily) our most important project, then they are out of luck from here on out,” he wrote, referring to political donation lists.
Abramoff’s lobbying began when the Interior Department initially opposed giving the Saginaw – a wealthy tribe with a casino – federal school construction aid.
Abramoff’s team turned to Congress, getting Michigan Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow to persuade their party’s leaders to request the money in a spending bill. Democrats controlled the Senate in 2002.
Abramoff then turned to Republicans, including Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, to overcome the administration’s objections and secure $3 million specifically for the Saginaw when the GOP regained control of the Senate the next year. The tribe last week announced that it was giving the money back.
The plan had hit a snag in summer 2002 when a single GOP House appropriations staffer, Joel Kaplan, objected. An angry Abramoff team frantically reached Republican leaders.
A staffer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Jonathan Poe, suggested Abramoff’s team compile a list of tribal donations, comparing Republicans with Democrats, to help make the case for lawmakers to overrrule Kaplan, the e-mails state.
Poe’s “suggestion for me was to have a list of money contributed by tribes broken down ‘r’ to ‘d’ so that I can make the cleanest argument that we are about to let the Senate Democrats take credit for the biggest ask of the year by the most Republican-leaning tribes,” Abramoff lobbying associate Neil Volz wrote.
Abramoff’s team obliged, creating a tally that showed his tribal clients overwhelmingly donated to Republicans – $225,000 compared with $79,000 for Democrats.
The Abramoff team’s pressure came the same day the NRCC, the GOP’s fundraising arm for Republican House candidates, held its major fundraising dinner with President Bush. The Saginaw were a dinner sponsor, donating $50,000.
Kaplan’s resistance drew the ire of Abramoff’s team.
“The bottom line is that a staffer received several letters from appropriators, Native American Caucus co-chairs and others supporting a project that costs the federal government ZERO dollars and he is refusing to put it in the bill because it’s ‘his account,'” Boulanger wrote.
Abramoff’s team devised a multi-pronged strategy.
Tony Rudy, an Abramoff colleague who was a former top aide to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, reached out to his old boss’ office. Rudy recently pleaded guilty in the corruption probe and is assisting prosecutors.
“I just came out of a meeting with DeLay’s folks. Joel ain’t budging,” Rudy wrote, referring to Kaplan.
Abramoff was copied on each of the e-mail exchanges, at one point affirming the strategy. “This is brilliant,” Abramoff wrote.
Abramoff’s team persisted, calling the White House intergovernmental affairs office that often deals with Congress.
“Just talked to White House intergovernmental. I’m pretty sure they will weigh in. Just trying to figure out if they should call Joel or some other player in this drama,” Abramoff associate Kevin Ring wrote.
In early 2003, Kaplan’s new boss, House subcommittee chairman Charles Taylor, R-N.C., ended any problems in the House when he signed onto the Saginaw money. Burns’ office took up the fight in the Senate.
Both oversaw subcomittees that controlled Interior’s budget, and the two lawmakers wrote a letter in May 2003 in an effort to overcome resistance inside Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was arguing the Saginaw shouldn’t qualify for the school program.
“It is our belief the Saginaw Chippewa tribal school in question clearly falls within” the school construction program, Burns and Taylor wrote, sharply criticizing the BIA. “We hope our collective response has cleared up any unneccessary confusion.”
The blunt letter has caught federal investigators’ interest because it referenced correspondence that had been drafted inside Interior but never delivered. Federal agents are investigating whether an Interior official leaked the draft to Abramoff’s team so it could be used by the lawmakers to pressure the department.
In addition, both Burns and Taylor got campaign money around the time of their help.
A month before the letter, Abramoff’s firm threw Taylor a fundraiser on April 11, 2003, that scored thousands of dollars in donations for the lawmaker’s campaign, including $2,000 from Abramoff and $1,000 from the Saginaw. The tribe donated $3,000 more to Taylor a month after the letter.
Burns, likewise, got fresh donations. Several weeks before the letter, Burns collected $1,000 from the Saginaw and $5,000 from another Abramoff tribe. The month after the letter, the Saginaw delivered $4,000 in donations to Burns.