There were two qualities that Jack Abramoff looked for in a prospective lobbying client: naiveté and a willingness to part with a lot of money. In early 2001 he found both in an obscure Indian tribe called the Louisiana Coushattas. Thanks to the humming casino the tribe had erected on farmland between New Orleans and Houston, a band that had subsisted in part on pine-needle basket weaving was doling out stipends of $40,000 a year to every one of its 800-plus men, women and children. But the Coushattas were also $30 million in debt and worried that renewal of their gambling compact would be blocked by hostile local authorities—and that their casino business would be eaten away by others looking to get a piece of the action. So tribal leaders were eager to hear from the handsome, dandily dressed visitor who had flown in from Washington with his partner on a private jet, shared some of their fried chicken in the council hall, then waited for them to turn off the tape recorder that they used for official business.
Abramoff told the tribal council he brought a special understanding to their plight. As an Orthodox Jew, "he understood how native Americans have been mistreated, been misled, because his people, the Jews, had also been done that way," William Worfel, then a member of the council, recalls him saying. If the Coushattas gave him enough money, Abramoff promised, he could make their problems go away. He and his partner Michael Scanlon, a onetime press secretary for congressional leader Tom DeLay who ran his own public relations firm, came through, attacking the tribe's political opponents, blitzing the state with television ads and tapping a grassroots operation of Christian conservatives to help stop any rival casinos. And by the next year, with elections rolling around, Abramoff had the Coushattas dreaming even bigger. "You can control Louisiana," Worfel recalls Abramoff telling the tribal leaders. "You could help elect Senators and Representatives and attorney generals in the state of Louisiana, and then they're going to remember that the Coushattas helped them. And they know that if you helped them, well, they know that you can come after them down the road if they don't help you, see?" The Coushattas went for it. On election night, they watched their chosen candidates with excitement and discovered that the $9.3 million they had given Scanlon had produced ... nothing.