WASHINGTON – Tom DeLay (search) and his top aides were often in daily contact with lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) during the mid-1990s as the lobbyist made campaign contributions and arranged travel for the House leader while seeking legislative help for a multimillion-dollar client, according to law firm records made public for the first time.
DeLay's office kept Abramoff, now under criminal investigation, routinely apprised of congressional efforts to block new regulations on his client, the Northern Mariana Islands (search).
Abramoff's firm reported it drafted legislative materials for DeLay, and Abramoff boasted to island leaders he could use his close ties to Republican leaders to block legislation from receiving a House vote.
"Getting the bill off the schedule for next week, however, should enable us to use our connections within the Leadership to ensure that ... it will not come to the floor," Abramoff wrote the islands in September 1996.
The Northern Marianas billing and correspondence records of Abramoff's former lobbying firm, Preston Gates (search), were obtained by The Associated Press under an open records request approved by the island government
They provide a day-by-day account of the lobbyist's campaign of fundraising, trip-providing and schmoozing with lawmakers in both parties aimed at getting Congress to block Clinton administration efforts to regulate alleged "sweatshop" garment factories in the Northern Marianas. Those rules were never enacted.
DeLay, R-Texas, is now the House majority leader, but back then he was the No. 3 official in the House. His job as majority whip involved counting the way lawmakers intended to vote, which often influenced when legislation would come to a vote in the GOP-led Congress. Though Abramoff billed the island for contacts with dozens of lawmakers, DeLay's office was among the most frequently listed in the billing records.
An Abramoff spokesman said Tuesday the records confirm the lobbyist earned his pay. "Mr. Abramoff and his team worked tirelessly on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and achieved tremendous results for this client," Andrew Blum said.
DeLay's office said Tuesday he made decisions on the merits, not because of Abramoff's largesse or lobbying. "People know that Majority Leader DeLay stands on principles and bases his voting decisions on the merits of legislation," spokesman Dan Allen said.
The documents show that Abramoff's firm and the House Ethics Committee began having concerns as early as 1996 about Abramoff's arrangement of numerous trips for congressional members to the Pacific islands and how they were being paid.
Abramoff billed numerous trips to his personal credit card or the firm, the records state, and then he later pressed the islands to reimburse him to avoid violating the new ban on lobbyists giving gifts to House members.
"I am under pressure here since the firm, under the gift ban rules, is not allowed to be out of pocket too long on the costs of congressional member and staff travel," Abramoff wrote in November 1996.
Though a tiny set of U.S. territorial islands in the Pacific Ocean with a population of about 80,000, Abramoff's client received constant attention — often numerous contacts in a week — from DeLay's staff in the mid- to late 1990s, the records state.
DeLay himself met or talked with Abramoff at least two dozen times in 1996 and 1997, when Abramoff's work for the islands got under way, the billing records state.
DeLay aides were in far more frequent contact, often talking day to day with Abramoff and his team of lobbyists, which charged the Northern Marianas $3 million in lobbying fees between October 1996 and October 1997.
On one trip that Abramoff arranged for DeLay and his staff to take to Russia in August 1997, the lobbyist billed the Northern Marianas for 20 hours of interactions with DeLay and his staff even though the trip was supposed to focus on Russian affairs, the records show.
Legislative dealings with DeLay's office were frequently sandwiched around campaign contributions, golf outings or trips from Abramoff to lawmakers, including some to DeLay.
For instance, the lobbyist and his wife gave maximum $5,000 donations each to DeLay's leadership political action committee on Jan. 14, 1997, about two months before DeLay met with the island's governor during a Washington visit and gave a glowing speech about the islands.
One of DeLay's top congressional aides at the time, Tony Rudy, made sure to e-mail Abramoff a copy of remarks DeLay made to the full House on March 19, 1997, praising the islands as a "model of reform" and recalling the U.S. soldiers who died defending the island during World War II.
Abramoff also arranged for DeLay and his wife to visit the Mariana Islands during the 1997 Christmas break. Earlier that month, two DeLay staffers went to the islands as well, the records show.
Throughout 1996, DeLay's staff had frequent contact with Abramoff and his team. In April, two donors from the islands gave $2,000 each to DeLay's campaign. In June 6, 1996, Abramoff gave a $2,000 donation in the name of DeLay's office to a charity golf tournament.
And a month after Abramoff wrote the islands about getting legislation they opposed blocked in the House, the political action committee for Abramoff's firm donated $500 to DeLay's campaign in October 1996.
The records show Abramoff's lobbying team sometimes billed the client to attend Republican fundraisers, such as one in August 1996 for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
In June 1997, he reported to the islands that he went to the U.S. Open golf tournament "with a number of our congressional staffer friends."
He credited the numerous trips he arranged to the islands for fending off the new labor rules and other federal oversight that the Clinton administration and some congressional Democrats were seeking.
"There is no doubt that trips to the CNMI (islands) are one of the most effective ways to build permanent friends on the Hill and among policymakers in Washington," the firm wrote the island government in a lobbying plan in February 1998.
Some of the lawmakers Abramoff arranged to travel to the islands included Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Brian Bilbray, both California Republicans, and Ralph Hall, a Texas Democrat.
If lawmakers weren't interested in traveling, Abramoff found other ways to reach out to them.
Responding to criticism he charged the Marianas to lobby on school-choice legislation, Abramoff said he did so to win favor with DeLay's boss, then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, another Texas Republican.
"Dick Armey has been instrumental in helping us stop a takeover for three years," Abramoff wrote the islands in June 1998. "The issue he cares most about in the world is school choice. Unlike DeLay, he has never (and will never) visit the CNMI (islands). He does not travel. He supports us because the CNMI has been flirting with school choice."