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Buckham was almost as important a person to know as DeLay. He was not only DeLay's top staff member but also a licensed nondenominational minister who served as his pastor. He remained DeLay's closest political adviser even after Buckham left DeLay's staff to start his own lobbying shop in 1998, and DeLay rose to majority leader. Buckham was also the over-seer of the political operation known around Washington as DeLay Inc., a tight meshing of business and conservative interests that was granted a seat at the table in exchange for putting money and political muscle behind DeLay's favored causes and candidates.
No one was more amenable to the arrangement than Abramoff, who also showered DeLay's staff with sports and concert tickets. After Buckham left, Abramoff developed a close relationship with deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy. "For all intents and purposes, Tony worked for Jack," contends a former Abramoff associate, who tells TIME that Abramoff even bought Rudy a text-messaging pager so that they would never be out of touch. Prosecutors allege that Abramoff also funneled payments to Rudy's wife—10 monthly payments totaling $50,000—through a nonprofit. When Rudy left DeLay's staff in 2000, he joined Abramoff at the lobbying firm of Greenberg Traurig. Rudy now works for Buckham at Alexander Strategy Group, another lobbying operation. Rudy, Buckham and Rudy's lawyer did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails from TIME requesting comment.
"People were kind of raising their eyebrows," recalls a former DeLay staff member, who says he was unsettled by Abramoff's constant presence. "Who is this guy, and what is he doing?" What he was doing, it now appears, was getting his clients, including not just Indian tribes but also businesses and government officials in foreign countries, to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars, often by making the contributions to nonprofit foundations that would in turn finance junkets for DeLay and other lawmakers, as well as their staffs. That was meant to get around House rules forbidding lobbyists to pay for congressional travel directly.
Sources close to the investigation have told TIME that the FBI has been particularly interested in a trip DeLay and some of his staff members took to London and Scotland in 2000. At the time, Congress was considering legislation that would have restricted Internet gambling, and with it the livelihoods of some of Abramoff arranged for two of them—a Choctaw Indian tribe and the gambling-services company eLottery Inc.—to each contribute $25,000 to the sponsor of the trip, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative nonprofit foundation on whose board Abramoff sat. They wrote their checks on May 25, 2000—the very day that DeLay departed.