The Golf Junket that Haunts Abramoff and Friends

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Jack Abramoff arrives at the Miami federal justice building in January.

Back in July 2003, now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his old College Republicans buddy, Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, were exchanging e-mails about Jeff Ballabon, another lobbyist they were trying to use for an entrée to the Bush White House, where Ballabon had friends. Reed forwarded Abramoff an unctuous message Ballabon had sent him and Reed added the comment, "It's now becoming physically painful," an apparent reference to Reed's distaste at the prospect of sidling up to Ballabon. Abramoff responded with an allusion to the Scottish golf trip he and Reed were to make the following month: "Hey, let's bring Jeff to Scotland and hit balls into him!" Reed, who had traveled to Scotland with Abramoff the year before, wrote back, "Let's hang him upside down from a crane over the 18th at the Old Course and use him to line up our drives!"

When it comes to the world of Washington lobbying, golf seems to bring out the worst in people. At least that's the impression you get from the Abramoff e-mails, hundreds of thousands of which have been obtained by federal investigators. A wide-ranging inquiry has spread across Washington and led Wednesday to the release by the Secret Service of the dates and times of two Abramoff visits to the White House. The Administration has previously acknowledged three other visits Abramoff made to the complex. The Administration also released e-mails Wednesday showing that a former official, David Safavian, offered to help Abramoff when the scandal broke in 2004.

But while the free meals, luxury sky box tickets and other gifts Abramoff spread around Washington have gotten a lot of powerful people in trouble over the last year, one junket that he arranged is proving particularly damaging. In August 2002, Abramoff flew Reed, Safavian, Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, and Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, on a rented Gulfstream II jet to St. Andrews, Scotland, for five days of golf, food and merriment. In the last few weeks, court action and new e-mails have tainted all four guests on the trip.

This week Ney came under renewed scrutiny when Volz pleaded guilty to conspiracy for helping Abramoff provide "things of value" to Ney in exchange for help with Abramoff's lobbying interests, most notably Indian casinos. Federal investigators already have plea agreements with Abramoff and two other colleagues alleging Ney participated in a bribery scheme whereby the Congressman performed official acts in exchange for gifts. First on the list of "things of value," the Justice Department said in the criminal information document it released as part of the Volz plea agreement this week, was the Scotland trip.

And for good reason. The itinerary for the trip, provided by Abramoff to Safavian a month before departure, was lavish. The private jet to Europe was followed by a stay at the Old Course Hotel (current rates begin at $450 per night), afternoon teeing off at the Kingsbarns links golf course and a late dinner. Golf the following day at a different course was to be followed by dinner in Edinburgh and the famous "Military Tattoo" parade at Edinburgh Castle. Three more days of golf at five different courses were to be followed by a stopover in London at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel (current rates begin at $445 per night).

Ney's lawyers said this week that Ney doesn't even like playing golf and said that he went on the trip to meet with Scottish and British parliamentarians. One stop on the itinerary is listed as "Dinner in Edinburgh (possibly with Conservative Party)." Otherwise no political events are mentioned. Representatives of the Scottish parliament have said Ney did not address them. Ney's travel disclosure forms filed with Congress listed the non-profit National Center for Public Policy Research, an organization funded by Abramoff clients, as the sponsor of the trip, but NCPPR later denied having paid or been involved. One of Ney's lawyers, Mark Tuohey said this week that Abramoff and his former colleagues, facing possible jail time, are "singing for their supper." Tuohey said many of the allegations regarding Ney are incorrect and that "the government has been sold a bill of goods by Mr. Abramoff."

In March 2002, Ney had agreed to insert language in an election bill that was being negotiated that would have lifted a gambling ban on an Indian tribal client, the Tiguas of Texas, according to the Volz plea deal. That effort failed when Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut did not back it in the Senate, leaving Abramoff vulnerable to the Tiguas' wrath. Three days after they returned from the Scottish golfing trip, according to Volz's plea agreement, Volz "told Ney what Abramoff wanted him to say" in a meeting with the Tiguas. The Tiguas' lawyer, Mark Schwartz told the Senate Indian Affairs committee that at the August meeting, "Congressman Ney was very animated about Mr. Abramoff's skill and repute as a leader in the lobbying circles." Schwartz testified that "We were told about the impending success of Mr. Abramoff's legislative plan and how much Congressman Ney wanted to help to restore the Tribe's ability to conduct gaming on their reservation." Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Ney says the Congressman never brought the Tigua matter up in committee, and says, "The [Volz] plea, as it relates to Ney is rich with inaccuracies and flat-out falsehoods."

Ney and Volz weren't the only trip members who were doing favors for Abramoff around the time of the Scotland trip. Two days before Abramoff sent Safavian the schedule for the junket, he asked him for some help in finding a location for a Jewish orthodox school he was looking to build in Maryland for his children to attend. Abramoff wanted to get land from the government, and Safavian, as chief of staff for the General Services Administration, the agency that controls government property, advised him that he should get Congress to order GSA to sell or lease the land to the school, according to e-mails released last month by the Justice department. Safavian later helped Abramoff on the drafting of a letter seeking the land from the government.

Abramoff turned to Volz. "[Safavian] said the quickest way to get this done is to slip it into a moving bill which directs GSA to transfer the property to the school," Abramoff wrote on July 21, 2002 to Volz. "Any chance of slipping into the election reform bill?" Volz replied, "The election reform negotiators have been meeting all weekend and may be close to agreement. This means we would have to move asap." "You are wonderful," Abramoff responded.

As with the attempt to lift the Tigua casino ban, the effort to get explicit Congressional action on Abramoff's behalf failed. But as far as Safavian is concerned the damage was done. Four days later he wrote a letter to an ethics officer at GSA asking permission to go on the Scotland trip and said airfare would be paid for by a "lobbyist" who "has no business before GSA." The Justice department cited this as evidence of obstruction and making false statements on Safavian's part when it indicted him last year. Safavian goes on trial May 22. Safavian's lawyer has said the Justice department, in releasing the e-mails, is inappropriately publishing hearsay documents ahead of the trial.

As for Reed, most of the damage done by his Abramoff golf outings has been to his reputation. He's in a close race for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, but his involvement with Abramoff has hurt his chances. He alienated his former Christian Coalition allies when it was revealed that in 2001 he had secretly taken gambling money to mobilize Christian activists to help shut down a tribal casino in Texas that competed with one run by Abramoff's Indian clients. The embarrassment only got worse when e-mails showed that the casino Reed secretly helped Abramoff close was run by the Tiguas, whom Abramoff turned around and signed up as clients months later with promises that he could help them reopen their gambling operation with Ney's help. Reed spokesperson Lisa Baron says he only learned of the attempt to sign the Tiguas up as clients "after the fact."

Baron says the Reed-Abramoff exchange about Ballabon was all in fun. "Jeff Ballabon and Ralph are very good friends. This was just friendly kidding," Baron says. If Reed could have seen some of the e-mails Abramoff was sending other colleagues — like those he and Reed were exchanging surreptitiously about Ballabon — he might have known the trouble he was getting himself into. Even as Abramoff was embracing Reed for his help in 2002, he was writing a colleague, "He is a bad version of us!"