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Abramoff Scandal
White House pressed on contacts with Abramoff


Correction: David Safavian represented the National Indian Gaming Association not the National Indian Gaming Commission. NIGC is a federal agency.

Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff met with White House staff a "few" times since President Bush took office but a spokesperson on Tuesday repeatedly refused to describe the nature of the contacts.

As the Abramoff scandal engulfs more Republicans, attention turned to the president and his aides during the daily press briefing. Spokesperson Scott McClellan was hit with a number of questions about the White House's dealings with the confessed felon, who admitted to defrauding tribal clients and attempting to bribe a member of Congress.

McClellan acknowledged that Abramoff had a "few staff-level meetings" with White House aides early in the Bush administration. He also said Abramoff attended "two Hanukkah receptions."

But he wouldn't go into details about the staff meetings, including who attended the meetings and the subject matter. "I don't get into discussing staff-level meetings," McClellan told reporters.

McClellan refused to say whether Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, attended any of the meetings. "Well, if you got something to bring to my attention," he said in a challenge to reporters, "I'll be glad to look into it."

After numerous protests about his refusal to disclose, McClellan finally said Rove "knows" Abramoff. "They are both former heads of the College Republicans," he said. "That's how they got to know each other way back, I think it was in the early '80s."

McClellan described the relationship as a "casual" one rather than a "business" one. Rove's current assistant, Susan Ralston, used to work for Abramoff, a link Abramoff liked to play up to associates and clients.

The exchange was the latest bid by Bush to distance himself and the White House from the scandal. Bush has called Abramoff and "equal money dispenser," a charge that McClellan repeated yesterday when he said Abramoff "and/or his clients contributed to both Democrats and Republicans."

So far, the inquiries into Abramoff's lobbying activities has turned up many more ties to one party than the other. Two GOP members of Congress have been wounded by their relationship with the confessed felon and an ex-White House official -- David Safavian, a GOP lobbyist who once represented the National Indian Gaming Association and other tribes -- has been charged with lying to investigators about his dealings with Abramoff.

A former Bush administration nominee also told a Senate committee that Abramoff bragged about his contacts to Rove. A White House spokesperson responded that Rove "has no recollection" of any discussions on a tax bill opposed by one of Abramoff's former non-tribal clients.

Despite Abramoff's connections to the White House, there has been little to indicate he was able to capitalize on them. In February 2003, he was forced to turn to Ralston, Rove's assistant, in hopes of blocking a land-into-trust application by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, whose proposed casino was opposed by one of his wealthy tribal clients.

"I don't want to bother you guys with a meeting request," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail, "so I was hoping you could pass on to Karl that Interior is about to approve a gaming compact and land in trust for a tribe which is an anathema to all our supporters down there."

A few days later, Ralston wrote back with bad news. "Karl and others are aware, but the WH is not going to get involved," she told her former boss.

A year earlier, Abramoff tried to use conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed, a close friend with ties to the White House, to get to Rove about the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, another wealthy client. "The Choctaws -- who have given literally hundreds of thousands to our candidates and groups -- are getting screwed at DoJ on a jail funding," he wrote Reed in January 2002.

Reed happened to be attending a speech being given by Rove and he agreed to talk to Rove about the issue. The Choctaws eventually obtained $16.3 million for the jail but there is no indication that Rove or anyone at the White House helped secure the appropriation.

The White House exchange came after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and three top Democrats called on Bush to disclose any contacts with Abramoff. "The American people need to be assured that the White House is not for sale," the letter stated. "As the leader of your party, you have the opportunity to set an example and call for openness and accountability from your fellow Republicans."

White House Press Briefing:
Jack Abramoff Excerpts | Full Transcript | Video

Relevant Documents:
US v. Abramoff | Abramoff Plea Agreement | Department of Justice Press Conference | US v. Scanlon Scanlon Plea Deal | Attachment

Lobbying Reform Bills:
S.2128 | S.1312

November 17, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits

November 2, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

June 22, 2005, Hearing:
Video | Exhibits 1 | Exhibits 2 | Witness List / Testimony

November 17, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony

September 29, 2004 Hearing:
Video | Exhibits | Witness List / Testimony