Too Close for Comfort with Abramoff

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Disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff used to be a problem for the White House primarily because his illegal lobbying activities got G.O.P. members of Congress in legal and political hot water and helped fuel Democrats' campaign message that congressional Republicans were a corrupt bunch that should be thrown out of power. Both Ohio Rep. Bob Ney and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas announced they were stepping down from Congress this year after being dogged by questions about their relationships with the disgraced lobbyist, who has plead guilty to mail fraud and bribery; Ney has already pleaded guilty to bribery charges, while DeLay has continued to insist he did nothing wrong. But a bipartisan report by the House Committee on Government Reform released Thursday puts the White House at the center of questions about whether the lobbyist improperly influenced its decisions on policy matters, just as he did on Capitol Hill. Here's what we learned from the report report on Abramoff's contacts with the White House:

1. Abramoff had much more extensive contact with the White House than it has admitted in the past.

In January, after he was indicted and there were rumors —which turned out to be correct—that Abramoff was in several photos at the White House, Bush said at a news conference, "I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy... I don't know him." At the time, White House officials also suggested that Abramoff had little influence or contact with them. The report cites more than 400 instances of Abramoff's team lobbying the White House. This is a one-sided account though, as it relies on e-mails from Abramoff and his fellow lobbyists; in many instances he discusses meals with White House senior advisers like Karl Rove, and it' s unclear if those ever actually took place. The White House has long maintained that Abramoff has exaggerated his ties and contacts to the Bush Administration.

But the report makes clear that Abramoff was in frequent communication with White House officials, particularly Susan Ralston, who was an assistant to Abramoff before becoming Rove's assistant early in Bush's first term. Abramoff's clients, mainly Indian tribes, paid for skyboxes and tickets to events that the lobbyist used to host congressional aides and others, and in the e-mails, Ralston treats Abramoff like her own personal Ticketmaster, frequently asking him if he has tickets to games and leaving the impression in some messages that she occasionally didn't pay for them. White House officials are banned from taking gifts of more than $20, which would barely get you a cheap seat at any of these events, let alone a luxury box seat. Other Rove aides were shown to be in e-mail contact with lobbyists on Abramoff's staff, and Rove himself e-mailed Abramoff a few days before the 2000 elections, responding to a message from Abramoff noting that "Governor Bush is winning" by saying "Jack - I will rest much easier..." Abramoff relied on Ralston, who remains in the White House as an aide to Rove, and Ralph Reed, an advisor to the 2004 campaign who was close to Rove, to communicate his wishes.

To be sure, the messages make it clear Abramoff desperately wanted to have more personal time with Rove, and couldn't get it, often having his calls returned by Rove aides rather than the powerful aide himself. In Dec. 2000, he sent a message trying to ingratiate himself with Rove, noting "I am sure you well covered with everything, but just in case, please do not hesitate to ask me for anything you might need." Sounding like a high school nerd with a crush on the captain of the cheerleading team, he brags about and overstates his few actual interactions with Rove. A March 2002 e-mail says "I was sitting yesterday with Karl Rove, Bush's top adviser, at the NCAA basketball game discussing Israel when this e-mail came in. I showed it to him." And White House officials dispute this account, saying Rove didn't sit with Abramoff at the game but merely stopped by and said hello to him. Ralston seemed to know Abramoff needed the affection, writing in a message with the subject line "Diet" that "Karl said you looked great. He'd love to know your secret."

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