'Cesspool Of Greed' D.C-Style

Jack Abramoff, right, listens to his attorney Abbe Lowe on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004, as Abramoff refused to answer questions before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The panel is studying tribal lobbying matters. CBS/AP

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


Dan Glickman served nine terms in the U.S. House. He was Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration. But he really didn't arrive on the A+ list of Washington celebrity and envy until he got a tip-top lobbying job as head of the Motion Picture Association of America a few months ago. After a very distinguished career of public service, now's he a somebody.

Lobbyists have come out of the cloakroom with a vengeance.

Petitioning power, like espionage and prostitution, is an ancient art but one generally practiced with dimmed lights. No more. For a few years now, even before George Clooney came to K St., lobbyists have been Washington celebrities. Now, when a congressman or a senator leaves office to become a lobbyist, it's considered a step up the food chain.

But it's a world where the bottom of the food chain is often close by.

At the turn of this century, the great new celebrity was a Republican named Jack Abramoff.

"In between running a restaurant, starting a private school, and helping his wife raise five children of their own and seven boarders, Jack Abramoff has somehow found time to become one of Washington's most sought-after lobbyists and political strategists," gushed The Hill, a close chronicler of these things.

Today, Abramoff took the 5th in front of a Senate committee. He did it lots of times actually.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is investigating allegations that Abramoff and a colleague, Michael Scanlon, who once served as House Majority Leader Tom Delay's press secretary, fleeced several Indian tribes looking for help on casino issues out of at least $50 million. Abramoff and Scanlon were renowned for their ties to Delay; Delay is renowned for trying to make paying clients use friendly, Republican lobbyists.

Today, Senator Byron Dorgan told the committee Abramoff and Scanlon lurked in a "cesspool of greed." A Washington grand jury, the FBI and a task force of five different federal agencies are also looking into the cesspool. That's why Abramoff took the 5th.

Remind me again why lobbying is so glamorous now?

The Abramoff-Scanlon story isn't going to make many headlines far from downtown D.C., but connoisseurs of corruption should savor this story (and The Washington Post is the best place to go for more). But thanks to the miracle of e-mail -- which never, ever really disappears, you know -- we can give you a tasting menu of power gluttony.

E-mails first published by the Post, seem to show that Abramoff and Scanlon paid a company run by Ralph Reed $4.2 million from 2001 to 2003 to help shut down casinos that might be competition for their clients or, in some cases, to prevent new ones from opening.

What's especially interesting is that Reed now the southern regional chairman of President Bush's reelection campaign. He was once the executive director of the Christian Coalition and is one of most influential figures on the Christian right.

In one of several egregious cases, Abramoff and Scanlon hired Reed to bring evangelical wrath unto the Tigua tribe's Speaking Rock Casino in El Paso, Texas and shut it down. The plan was for Abramoff and Scanlon to vulture down to snag the Tigua tribe as a new client.

In November 2001, Reed noticed the Tiguas were taking out expensive ads to fight an effort by the Texas Attorney General (now Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas) to close their casino. "Wow. These guys are really playing hard ball," Reed e-mailed to Abramoff. "Do you know who their consultant(s) are?"

"Some stupid lobbyists up here who do Indian issues. We'll find out and make sure all our friends crush them like bugs," Abramoff e-mailed back.

Several months later, Reed reported some success in getting "our pastors" mobilized against the Tigua's casino. "Great. thanks Ralph. we should continue to pile on until the place is shuttered," replied Abramoff's e-mail.

By February, 2002 the shutdown was close. The Washington Post account is a classic:

  • On Feb. 6, 2002, with the casino's shutdown just two days away, the tribe was desperate. Abramoff made his move. "I'm on the phone with Tigua!" he wrote in a 9:54 a.m. e-mail to Scanlon. "Fire up the jet baby, we're going to El Paso!!"

  • A week later, a Texas consultant employed by the tribe thanked Abramoff for his visit and said he would push his proposal. Abramoff forwarded the e-mail to Scanlon with the message: "This guy NEEDS us to save his ass!!"

  • Days later, on Feb. 19, Scanlon sent Abramoff an El Paso Times news story headlined "450 casino employees officially terminated" with the message: "This is on the front page of today's paper while they will be voting on our plan!"

    "Is life great or what!!!" responded Abramoff.

  • Days after the casino was closed, Abramoff promised the Tiguas to use his clout to right the "gross indignity perpetuated by the Texas state authorities."

    The Tiguas went on to pay Scanlon's firm a reported $4.2 million; the next month, a different Scanlon company reportedly wrote a check for $2.1 million (that would be half of $4.2 million, remember) to a company formed by Abramoff, not the law firm where he worked (which has since fired him).

    The Speaking Rock casino never reopened.

    In another gooey profile a few years back when times were good, a Washington business magazine quoted an unnamed lobbyist: "Jack Abramoff is the face of Republican lobbyists in the future. He can get anybody to do just about anything he wants."

    We'll see what the grand jury thinks about that.



    Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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    By Dick Meyer
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