A White House aide who was once chief of staff to House Majority Leader John Boehner helped plan a 1996 trip to the Northern Mariana Islands that was organized by fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff, billing records from Abramoff's firm show.
Barry Jackson, now chief deputy to White House adviser Karl Rove, accepted an invitation to travel to the island of Saipan in April 1996 but later decided not to go, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Tuesday.
The government of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands extended the invitations to Jackson and other high-level GOP House leadership staff while Congress was considering legislation to control immigration and labor practices in the remote Pacific island territory.
Abramoff, the central figure in a wide-ranging Justice Department investigation of influence peddling in Congress, lobbied for the Marianas in Washington. The commonwealth's government was accused of permitting egregiously low wages and poor conditions for immigrants working in sweatshops.
According to bills from Abramoff's former lobbying firm to the Marianas government, Abramoff's staff contacted Boehner's office about island issues at least 10 times in the first four months of 1996. Copies of the billing records were obtained by The Associated Press through open-records requests to the territorial government.
Typically, the contact was made by David Safavian, who later became the Bush administration's chief procurement official in the Office of Management and Budget. Safavian recently was indicted on charges of obstructing investigations of his ties to Abramoff. Safavian was the first administration official indicted in the Abramoff scandal.
On March 15, 1996, two weeks before the Saipan trip, Abramoff's lobbying records show Safavian went over trip plans with Jackson and Mimi Simoneaux, then spokeswoman for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. On April 1, the day the congressional aides flew to the Marianas, Safavian called Boehner's office "to ascertain the location of B. Jackson." Abramoff's employee called about Jackson again the following day.
Jackson does not recall why he decided not to make the trip, given that it occurred 10 years ago, Healy said.
Since Boehner started campaigning early this year to replace DeLay as the No. 2-ranked House leader, he has denied having any relationship with Abramoff. Boehner has promised reforms to shake the GOP's Abramoff-related troubles.
When asked about the contacts between his office and Abramoff's, including a dinner Boehner attended in May 1996, Boehner told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday: "Some of his (Abramoff's) underlings worked with some low-level employees of my office. I'm telling you I never met the man."
Boehner spokesman Don Seymour said Tuesday that Boehner now does recall meeting Abramoff once, in "a brief, incidental conversation at a widely attended event that he estimates was about five years ago."
In an e-mail to the AP, Seymour also said Boehner did not intentionally downplay Jackson's role on his staff.
Boehner has declined to give up more than $30,000 he got from Abramoff's Indian tribe clients, saying his own work on tribal issues justifies the contributions. He did not receive any money from the tribes until Abramoff represented them.