News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 U.S. | Abramoff Sought Bush Officials' Aid in Indian-Tribe Fee Dispute

Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Lobbyist Jack Abramoff sought the help of U.S. Interior Department officials to save the job of an Indian leader under fire for $37 million in fees his tribe paid Abramoff and a partner, according to interviews and e-mails.

The department's Bureau of Indian Affairs last year ruled that Lovelin Poncho should remain head of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. The bureau acted after Poncho sought help from Abramoff, who called then-Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and other Interior Department officials, according to a person familiar with the issue.

The ruling thwarted efforts by tribal members who opposed the payments to Abramoff and wanted the bureau's support in ousting Poncho. ``Maybe this explains why we hit such a wall in trying to have the BIA cooperate,'' said lawyer Jimmy Faircloth, who at the time represented a dissident faction within the Coushattas and is now is now the tribe's attorney.

Abramoff is at the center of both a Justice Department-led investigation and a probe by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee into his dealings with Indian tribes and other lobbying clients. The Senate panel is looking into more than $80 million the casino-owning tribes paid Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon.

Scanlon, 35, pleaded guilty on Nov. 21 to one count of conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with a Justice Department probe of Abramoff's alleged efforts to buy off public officials.

Abramoff and another former business partner were indicted earlier this year for wire fraud in a case involving their purchase of a Florida casino boat company.

Tribal Client

Abramoff, 46, represented the Coushattas from 2001 to 2004, when he worked for Greenberg Traurig LLP, a Miami-based law firm, records filed with the Senate and House show.

Griles, 57, told the Senate panel on Nov. 2 that he had no special relationship with Abramoff. The Bureau of Indian Affairs entered the dispute among factions of the tribe in February 2004, after a showdown between Poncho, 58, and tribal dissidents. Poncho, who had hired Abramoff and Scanlon, said at a tribal council meeting that he was quitting, after facing hostile questions over the lobbying contracts, according to lawyer Faircloth and accounts in Louisiana newspapers.

Opponents of the Abramoff contract, led by council member David Sickey, accepted Poncho's resignation.

A day later, Poncho told a newspaper that he hadn't quit. He then called Abramoff for help in getting the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support him, according to the person familiar with the lobbying effort. Abramoff and his associates called Griles, then the No. 2 Interior official after Secretary Gale Norton, and other department officials, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages and administers the Indian lands held in trust by the U.S. The agency decides which tribes and tribal governments the U.S. will recognize.

E-Mail Traffic

The bureau indicated it still recognized Poncho as chairman, according to Faircloth and e-mail traffic between Abramoff's lobbying associates that was released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which this month completed its hearings on Abramoff.

``BIA sent the letter to Coushatta tonight reaffirming that Poncho is chief,'' Kevin Ring, a lawyer who worked with Abramoff at the time, wrote to another lawyer, Michael Williams, and two other colleagues on Feb. 13, less than a week after Poncho allegedly resigned.

``Good work, but frankly I'm surprised they did,'' Williams responded. ``Jack owes u big on that.''

``Griles did it,'' Ring responded.

At Poncho's request, the bureau also took over the tribal police force, dismissing Sickey's brother, Kevin, who was police chief, Faircloth said.

Contact With Abramoff

Griles told the Senate panel on Nov. 2 that he had spoken with Abramoff about a dispute involving an Indian tribe and brought it to the attention of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He told the committee that he ``may have asked'' the acting assistant secretary of the bureau to call Abramoff, according to a transcript of the hearing. He declined further comment.

Aurene Martin, who was acting assistant secretary at the time, didn't return phone calls seeking comment. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling didn't respond to several requests for comment, including phone calls and faxed questions.

The attorney representing the council at the time, Kathryn Van Hoof, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to comment.


At the Indian Affairs hearing, Griles denied he helped Abramoff's clients. He said Abramoff ``claimed to have special access to my office on behalf of his Indian gaming clients. That is outrageous and it is not true. If he got his money in part by misrepresenting his relationship with me, I am extremely pleased that you are investigating this.''

Griles told the committee that Abramoff had offered him a job in September 2003. Griles said he declined the offer and reported it to the Interior Department's ethics office. ``It raised alarms with me,'' he said. About five months later, he had the conversation with Abramoff about the Coushatta dispute.

Griles' recollections on another issue were challenged by the e-mails released by the Senate committee and by Michael Rossetti, the former counsel to Norton. Rossetti disputed Griles' testimony that he had never gotten involved in Indian gaming issues.

Dinner Party

Poncho didn't seek re-election in June 2005. The vice chairman, William Worfel, another Abramoff ally, lost the chairmanship to Kevin Sickey, who now controls the council along with his brother, David, and another anti-Abramoff tribal member.

Abramoff may have crossed paths with Griles as early as 2000, when the two men served on the Interior Department's transition team after George W. Bush was elected president.

Griles, who's now a lobbyist in Washington, attended a dinner party in Washington along with Abramoff, Poncho, Van Hoof and Norton on Sept. 24, 2001. The party was organized by Italia Federici, head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a pro-business group that Norton helped found.

Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for Bush's re-election in 2004.

The Justice Department investigation of the lobbyist's activities has already reached into the Bush administration. The White House's former chief procurement officer, David Safavian, who once worked as a lobbyist with Abramoff, was indicted in October for obstruction and making false statements in connection with the investigation.

``It's an ever-widening investigation,'' said former federal prosecutor Melanie Sloan, now head of the Washington- based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. ``The more you look at it, the more people are involved.''

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at
Last Updated: November 29, 2005 00:04 EST


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