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.
Federal bribery law prohibits public officials from taking actions because of gifts or political donations and bars lobbyists from demanding government action in exchange for donations.
Abramoff's team repeatedly discussed donations as the reason Republican leaders should intervene for the Saginaw, the e-mails show.
"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.
The e-mails have become evidence in a federal corruption probe into whether lawmakers, congressional aides and administration officials helped Abramoff's clients in exchange for gifts and donations.
A former federal prosecutor who specialized in fundraising cases said the e-mails are "circumstantial evidence that the money may have a relationship to certain legislative action" and would be useful in criminal prosecution if bolstered by other evidence.
"It memorializes what a lot of people suspect: that money buys access," said Charles La Bella, who oversaw a 1990s investigation into Clinton-era fundraising. "Politicians, because of the way the system is set up, need money. And money is used as a carrot and a stick by lobbyists to encourage or discourage legislative action."
Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, declined comment Tuesday on the e-mails.
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.
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.
Poe declined to be interviewed for comment. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said he didn't know if the NRCC ultimately helped but that NRCC staff routinely suggest strategy for lobbyists and others.
"We talk to groups and people all the time and recommend strategy. We do that with campaigns. It's part of what we do," Forti said.
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.
Kaplan, who worked at the White House budget office before becoming an aide on the House Interior appropriations committee, did not return repeated phone calls to his office seeking comment. He currently works for a private firm.
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'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.
Several people familiar with the lobbying effort said the possibility of White House help became moot when congressional leaders intervened.
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.
Taylor's office did not respond to several calls seeking comment. The lawmaker had his own interest in the school construction program. The year after the Saginaw money, Taylor arranged for the Cherokee tribe in his home state to get similar money.
In a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee, Burns' lawyer confirmed the senator's staff met with Abramoff's lobbying team about the Saginaw but insisted any "suggestion that funding for this project resulted from Mr. Abramoff's influence is not accurate."