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.