Turning Up the Sleaze

A jaw-dropping article in the Texas Observer shows that two lobbying clients of Jack Abramoff paid $25,000 to Grover Norquist's group for a lunch date and meeting with President George W. Bush in May 2001. Abramoff brought the Indian chiefs to the White House at the request of Norquist, a leading "movement conservative" in Washington. In addition, Abramoff obtained $2.5 million in contributions from the Indians for a nonprofit foundation run by his wife and himself.

The White House guests were the chiefs of two of the six casino-rich Indian tribes represented by Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon, former top aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The $25,000 check from the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana is made out to Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group founded and directed by Norquist.

Norquist, Abramoff and Karl Rove have worked together for 30 years, since they were national leaders of the College Republicans. Norquist, DeLay and Abramoff are all key players in the "the K Street Project" to turn the Washington lobby corps into an arm of the Republican Party.

(Obligatory disclosure: The Observer's story, "The Pimping of the President," is by Lou Dubose, a freelance writer with whom I have written two books and am working on a third. However, Dubose has never had anything to do with my newspaper column, nor am I involved with any of his journalism. Another reporter who deserves credit on this story is Shawn Martin of the Lake Charles (La.) American Press, who has followed it from the end of the local Indian tribe.)

The Observer's story comes after a year of denials from the tribe (or at least the majority on the tribal council and their lawyer, Kent Hance, a major player in Texas Republican circles and former state officeholder).

The Observer was too tasteful to crack any jokes about how forgettable a meeting with this Great White Father might be. Dubose reports: "According to a source close to the tribal majority, Chairman Poncho recently 'revisited that issue' of his visit to the White House. He had previously denied it because he thought he was responding to press inquiries that implied he had a one-on-one meeting with Bush. He now recalls that he did in fact go to the White House on May 9, 2001. ... That meeting lasted for about 15 minutes and was not a one-on-one meeting. ... Abramoff was at the meeting."

According to the new version, Bush made some general comments about Indian policy but did not discuss Indian gaming. Abramoff billed the Coushatta $25,000 for the meeting.

"Norquist has not responded to inquiries about using the White House as a fund-raiser. It is, however, a regular ATR practice to invite state legislators and tribal leaders who have supported ATR anti-tax initiatives to the White House for a personal thank-you from the president. A source at ATR said no money is ever accepted from participants in these events. The $25,000 check from the Coushattas suggests that, at least in this instance, Norquist's organization made an exception. The $75,000 collected from the Mississippi Choctaws and two corporate sponsors mentioned in Abramoff's e-mail suggests there were other exceptions. Norquist recently wrote to the tribes who paid to attend White House meetings. His story regarding that event is also evolving."

Norquist now says the contributions were in no way related to any White House event. "That doesn't square with the paper trail Abramoff and Norquist left behind, which makes it evident they were selling access to the president," Dubose writes.

For an overview of the entire Abramoff scandal and its relation to Tom DeLay and the K Street Project -- and what all this means in terms of Washington sleaze -- see an article by Elizabeth Drew, "Selling Washington," in the June 23 issue of The New York Review of Books. Drew and other students of Washington corruption conclude what we have here is not so much a difference in kind as in degree of corruption -- but of a degree that's making a difference in everything.

Drew writes, "The effects of the new, higher level of corruption on the way the country is governed are profound. Not only is legislation increasingly skewed to benefit the richest interests, but Congress itself has been changed. The head of a public policy strategy group told me: 'It's not about governing any more. The Congress is now a transactional institution. ...' The theory that ours is a system of one-person, one-vote, or even that it's a representative democracy, is challenged by the reality of power and who really wields it. (Massachusetts Rep.) Barney Frank argues that 'the political system was supposed to overcome the financial advantage of the capitalists, but as money becomes more and more influential, it doesn't work that way.'"

I doubt there is a more important story in this country today. All reporters who want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein should follow Dubose and Martin to the local ends of this story.

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