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But those numbers look trivial compared with what Abramoff's clients apparently were pouring into a little-known public-advocacy group, the U.S. Family Network, which Buckham organized in 1996 for the ostensible purpose of promoting conservative values and "moral fitness." Last month the Washington Post reported that nearly all its funding came from corporations linked to Abramoff—including a million-dollar payment that may well have come indirectly from corrupt Russian oil interests, which have never expressed much interest in moral fitness; half a million dollars from textile companies in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific that are known for their cheap labor; and a quarter of a million from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Abramoff's largest client. (See accompanying graphic.)
That was a lot of money to give to an organization that never had more than one full-time employee and spent little on public advocacy. But the U.S. Family Network did run ads attacking vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, and it owned the town house where DeLay's political-action committee rented its offices. The entity also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Buckham and his firm Alexander Strategy Group, which at the time was paying DeLay's wife Christine $3,200 a month to make lists of lawmakers' favorite charities—information that an intern could probably dig up in a week.
DeLay's lawyer Richard Cullen says that if those who worked for the former House majority leader were doing anything shady, their boss had no inkling of it. "Certainly he would be very, very sad and disappointed if it turns out any of his staffers did anything that was inappropriate—not just illegal but inappropriate," Cullen tells TIME. "He demands honesty and excellence from his employees."
But buying influence was only part of Abramoff's enterprise. All along, he was taking his cut and financing projects of his own, including a religious academy in Maryland where he sent his children and a sniper school for Israelis on the West Bank. His three Washington restaurants, now closed, were hemorrhaging money, and he was always working on a half-baked business idea, such as starting an indoor lacrosse league or a ferry service across the Potomac. "Jack lived pretty much right at his means," says a former associate who was familiar with his personal finances. "He never saved money. He lived check to check." In one of his 2003 e-mails to Scanlon, Abramoff even sounded desperate: "Mike!!! I need the money TODAY! I AM BOUNCING CHECKS!!!" Indeed, it was a business deal gone sour that might have finally forced his guilty plea in the Washington corruption case. He was scheduled this week to go on trial in Florida on charges that he and a business partner, Adam Kidan, falsified a loan guarantee as part of a $147.5 million deal to buy a fleet of casino boats. His plea deal in that case last week, which avoids that trial, is also contingent on his cooperation in the Washington investigation.
Worfel, the former Coushatta leader who was so dazzled by Abramoff five years ago, says he hasn't heard from him since around the time the first reports of the scandal broke and the lobbyist was fired by his firm, Greenberg Traurig. "Jack was calling and said, 'Man, I need help.'" Even after everything he had taken from the tribe, he still wanted more. Worfel turned him down, but Abramoff kept calling, leaving eight or nine more voicemail messages. Finally, Worfel did the only thing he could do against a man as persistent as Jack Abramoff. He got a new cell phone.
With reporting by Mike Allen, Perry Bacon Jr., Brian Bennett, Massimo Calabresi, Matthew Cooper, Mark Thompson, Douglas Waller / Washington, Siobhan Morrissey / Miami, Jeffrey Ressner / Los Angeles, Eli Sanders / Seattle