When Tom Met Jack

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Dynamic Duo: House majority leader Tom DeLay called lobbyist Jack Abramoff one of his "dearest" friends

It was congress's holiday for memorial Day 2000, and majority whip Tom DeLay's staff thought the boss and two top aides deserved a respite from the arduous hours they had been putting in doing the people's business. They wanted to make sure DeLay's little delegation had the finest of everything on its weeklong trip to Britain—from lodgings at the Four Seasons Hotel in London to dinners at the poshest restaurants with the most interesting people, right down to the best tickets for The Lion King—at the time, one of the hottest shows playing on the West End and one for which good seats usually meant a six-month wait. So DeLay's congressional office turned to someone they trusted far more than any travel agent or concierge: lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "He ran all the trips," recalls a former top DeLay aide. "You ask where the itineraries came from, who made all the travel arrangements—it all came out of Jack's shop."

Previous trips had taken DeLay and members of his staff all over the world, but none had been planned quite as meticulously as this one.

Three sources who worked with Abramoff at the time say the majority whip's office ran one of Abramoff's assistants ragged with its constantly changing requests. Indeed, say two of those sources, the whole idea for the expensive London jaunt originated with DeLay aides as an additional stop on a golf outing that Abramoff had proposed to Scotland's famous St. Andrews course.

Abramoff delivered on virtually everything DeLay's staff requested.

"Jack didn't need this to go awry," recalls a lobbyist who then worked with Abramoff at the Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds law firm and who notes that the trip came at a critical moment. Congress was considering legislation (which died a month after the trip) that might have shut down Internet gambling—and jeopardized the livelihoods of some of Abramoff's biggest clients. Two of them—a Choctaw Indian tribe and the Internet gambling company eLottery Inc.—each wrote a check for $25,000 on May 25, 2000, the day DeLay departed, to the sponsor of the trip, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative nonprofit foundation on whose board Abramoff sat. Those checks would cover most of the cost of the $70,000 junket. Sponsorship by the center made the trip allowable under House ethics rules, which prohibit lobbyists from paying for congressional travel.

Yet the flurry of demands by DeLay's staff to Abramoff's lobbying operation call into question whether DeLay's office really believed the trip was, in fact, "sponsored, organized and paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research," as DeLay spokesman Dan Allen maintained when the Washington Post first reported the indirect financing arrangement last month. What's more, if the idea for and details of the London leg originated with DeLay's office, that raises questions about possible violations of a House rule governing gifts and travel. The rule allows members to accept gifts, under limited circumstances, but not to solicit them. Allen told TIME he would not comment on any dealings between DeLay's staff and Abramoff unless TIME revealed its sources or provided documentary evidence.

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