When Tom Met Jack

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ZIV KOREN / POLARIS

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

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But then, associates say, they had never seen a salesman quite like Abramoff, whose favorite saying, one recalls, was, "If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing." On the one hand, he was a father of five and an Orthodox Jew pious enough to refuse to drive or use electricity on the Sabbath. On the other, he was a lavish entertainer who used his clients' money to buy skyboxes at every professional-sports venue in the Washington area, and who, his former co-workers recall, indulged a love of gadgets by buying a golf simulator that cost more than $30,000 and insisting that his BMW come equipped with a flat-screen TV.

Abramoff was constantly coming up with new business propositions—wanting to buy an indoor lacrosse team one week and start a newspaper the next—but almost never staying interested long enough to follow through. He rarely took on a client who couldn't pay at least $100,000 a month but nonetheless annoyed his associates by delegating to them the actual lobbying—or "asks"—of most Congress members. When it came to DeLay's office, however, Abramoff did the work himself. Sources say he developed a particularly close relationship with Tony Rudy, who in his five years of working for DeLay was at various times press secretary, policy director, general counsel and deputy chief of staff. Abramoff and Rudy shared passions for sushi, racquetball and golf, and the lobbyist lavished sports tickets on the congressional aide. Two former DeLay staff members recall that Rudy would frequently e-mail Abramoff from inside Republican leadership meetings on a Motorola pager that Hill staff members carried as a precursor to their now ubiquitous BlackBerrys.

Ultimately, Rudy joined Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig, the lobbying firm that hired Abramoff in December 2000. But he soon left, having discovered, former associates of both men say, that it was not as much fun to work for Abramoff as to be courted by him. Rudy, now at Alexander Strategy Group, a firm founded by former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham, did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview.

Both Abramoff and Scanlon have declined to answer questions from congressional investigators. But sources tell TIME that Abramoff's work habits could be making the investigators' job much easier. He did nearly all his communication by e-mail—even with the assistants who sat right outside his office, associates say. And having farmed out so much work among his colleagues, Abramoff insisted on a daily accounting—known as the wrap-up—to make sure it had all got done. In those records, which sources say have been turned over to congressional investigators and the FBI, are notations of nearly every phone call and appointment, every payment that was collected and every check that was sent out.

From this information, say some who were involved with collecting it, investigators will try to piece together what is being called a timeline linking favors asked of lawmakers with contributions and favors they asked of Abramoff.

But there is one place, at least for now, where no such scrutiny is taking place: the House ethics committee. DeLay has said he would welcome a chance to explain everything to the panel, which last year admonished him three times. But Democrats have shut down the committee, saying they object to rule changes that make it impossible to open an investigation without the support of at least one member of each party. DeLay says he sees little more than a Democratic plot at work. "The only way I can be cleared is through the ethics committee, so they don't want one," DeLay told the Washington Times last week. But when the journalists asked DeLay whether he had ever crossed the line of ethical behavior, he gave an answer that could come back to haunt him. "Ever," he said, "is a very strong word."

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