Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff paid a lot of attention to the Bureau of Indian Affairs since the start of the Bush administration, according to e-mails released as part of an ongoing investigation.
Abramoff closely monitored actions that could affect his wealthy tribal clients, according to the messages. They detail his concerns with land-into-trust applications, gaming compacts and other activities, some of which blossomed into political controversies that put the administration in the hot seat for its stance on Indian issues.
"This is totally horrible for both the Choctaw in Mississippi and the Coushatta," he wrote in a January 27, 2002, message, describing a rival tribe whose gaming plans threatened his clients.
"This is really, really horrible," he wrote on January 30, 2002, when an agent from the
Interior Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) showed up on the reservation of one of his clients. The OIG has been an active player in the Department of Justice's investigation of Abramoff -- an agent appeared in court this week when Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty.
Beyond decisions at the BIA, the e-mails show Abramoff had a stake in the agency's leadership.
He appeared to be very upset when Aurene Martin, a former aide to the Senate committee now investigating him, was appointed as acting head of the BIA after former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb resigned in
"WHAT?!?!" he exclaimed on January 8, 2003. "I can't believe they named her." According to subsequent e-mails, Martin made decisions that were contrary to his clients' interests.
But long before Martin came on the scene and even before Neal McCaleb, an Oklahoma Republican, was chosen back in the spring of 2001, Abramoff endorsed Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET). The organization represents the two tribes who were Abramoff's biggest clients -- the wealthy and influential Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.
"Please let me know what I can do to help ... Tim Martin (Bureau of Indian Affairs) be placed," he wrote on January 30, 2001, the same day Interior Secretary Gale Norton was confirmed by the Senate. Tim Martin, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from Alabama, is not related to Aurene Martin, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Chippewa in Wisconsin.
Additionally, the e-mails provide a glimpse into the public, personal and social life of another high-level political appointee -- former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles, himself a lobbyist. As the second-in-command at the Interior Department, Griles was one of the controversial figures of the Bush administration for his views on oil, gas and other development on public lands.
In messages Abramoff wrote and received, Griles is repeatedly called "our guy," a term that suggests some form of quid pro quo -- at least in the eyes of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which released the electronic communications. "I have a call into our guy Steve Griles," the former attorney for the Coushatta Tribe wrote on July 18, 2001.
Griles "is the one who gets everything done anyway," Abramoff wrote a couple months later on September 20, 2001, shortly before Abramoff attended a private, social dinner with Griles, Norton and other top Bush officials. Tribal leaders also attended.
On the personal side, Griles was "edgy" about a "hit piece" The Washington Post was writing, according to an April 25, 2001, message to Abramoff from Italia Federici, the head of a Republican
environmental group who was questioned by the Senate committee last week. "Steve was very rational and helped us understand that the bad guys only attack you b/c you are effective and don't take it personally," Federici told Abramoff.
And in an incident raised by the committee when Griles was called to testify earlier this month, Federici told Abramoff that Griles "really enjoyed meeting you and was grateful for the strategic advice on BIA." The meeting occurred on March 1, 2001, seven days before the White House
announced Griles as its nominee.
Despite all of the attention, there is no indication that Abramoff influenced any of the BIA's dealings except to get members of Congress angry about pending decisions. Even the most controversial case -- a land-into-trust application in Louisiana -- went against his clients.
Tim Martin was never chosen for the BIA job, although he has been reconsidered for the post since there is currently a vacancy. Some people in Indian political circles believe a Washington Post item about Martin being endorsed by casino mogul Donald Trump caused him to be passed over back in 2001.
The only incident that hasn't been fully explored involves the Meskwaki Tribe of Iowa. A faction of
the tribe hired Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's former firm, in the midst of a leadership dispute. During the controversy, which forced the closure of the tribe's highly lucrative casino for most of 2003, the faction donated $50,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, the group headed be Federici, during the controversy.
Aurene Martin ended up recognizing this faction as the legitimate tribal council. Abramoff, however, was not registered to lobby on the tribe's behalf, according to Senate records. But several of his Greenberg Traurig colleagues -- including three who forced to leave the firm as a result of the scandal -- did work for the tribe. One of them, Michael Smith, continues to represent the tribe in Washington.
But the e-mails do indicate Abramoff was privy to information inside Interior, and possibly the BIA, that was not yet known to the general public. The Griles meeting before his nomination was announced is one example.
Another example is a message about McCaleb's vacancy that came just two weeks after he announced his resignation. On December 4, 2002, Abramoff was told that "Aurene [Martin]
is not going to be selected for the job being vacated by Neal McCaleb. They will appoint an acting temporarily."
A month later, Aurene was appointed in an acting capacity.
A third example is a partially redacted message that Abramoff wrote on February 6, 2003. "XXXXXX just returned from Interior where he was told by BIA (Aurene Martin
and Mike Rosetti among others) that they were going to approve the Jena compact and land in trust!! This is a total disaster as you can imagine." The BIA's stance wasn't publicly known -- even a Republican member of Congress wasn't sure where the agency stood at the time, according to a news report from Louisiana.
Mike Rossetti was the former counselor to Norton and testified before the Senate earlier this month
and accused Griles of trying to influence the decision-making process on the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, a Louisiana tribe opposed by Abramoff's former clients. Griles repeatedly denied any improper actions but had trouble recalling some of the details of the period, and even his meeting
November 17, 2005, Hearing:Video
November 2, 2005, Hearing:
Witness List / Testimony