WASHINGTON – For lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search), no politician was too big to pursue and no detail too small to charge his clients for.
Working to keep the Northern Marianas Islands (search) free of new U.S. regulations, Abramoff sought help from Tom DeLay (search), other congressional leaders and high-level Bush administration officials.
At the same time, he charged the islands for such mundane tasks as securing tee times at the right golf courses for Washington visitors and obtaining an autographed copy of a book by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Questions about Abramoff's billing practices arose well before a federal grand jury and two congressional committees recently began investigating whether he overcharged several Indian tribes for his lobbying work on gambling issues.
His own lobbying firm was concerned as early as 1996 about his use of a credit card to pay for congressional trips to the Pacific U.S. territorial islands, fearing it ran afoul of ethics rules, according to billing records obtained by The Associated Press.
By 2001, the island government was questioning whether Abramoff's multimillion-dollar lobbying bills -- sometimes covered with U.S. tax dollars -- were justified.
Abramoff offered the island government a string of reasons, including a Jewish holiday, why he wouldn't appear at an October 2001 hearing the Marianas Senate called to look into why the cash-strapped territory paid so much to Abramoff's lobbying team.
"I can't attend such a hearing (and am not sure I would be allowed to do so anyway, by the code of ethics -- you are our client, not the legislature). It is Simchas Torah that day," wrote Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew. "I can't really come to the CNMI before November, and in any event, given how red hot things are right now on the minimum wage, my leaving for a week would be horrible (I am needed to work WH senior staff and House leadership)."
Another Abramoff client, the Marshall Islands (search), refused to pay all its lobbying fees, which included Abramoff's hourly rate of $425.
Abramoff's firm at the time, Preston Gates (search), sued the Marshalls in 2001 for $433,363; the Pacific islands agreed to pay part of that and the case was settled.
Abramoff, a high-level fundraiser for President Bush, has remained mostly silent in public as a federal grand jury investigates his work and as increasing scrutiny is given to his relations with DeLay and other members of Congress.
Abramoff and his spokesman will say only that his work was worth everything he charged.
Some lawmakers are calling for tougher ethics rules to govern contacts with lobbyists, and the House is prepared to open an ethics investigation into the DeLay-Abramoff dealings.
Abramoff's billing records make clear his efforts spread far across Washington.
He and his team had dozens of conversations with DeLay or his staff, and at least 195 contacts with Bush administration officials in Bush's first 10 months in the White House.
Abramoff's lobbying efforts included regular briefings with House and Senate leaders and strategy sessions with well-connected conservative activists including Grover Norquist (search), whose Americans for Tax Reform group is being subpoenaed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for documents as part of its Abramoff probe.
Abramoff also established himself as a Republican fundraiser, collecting more than $100,000 for Bush's re-election campaign, for example, and giving campaign cash to DeLay and other lawmakers.
A question for those investigating Abramoff will be whether he crossed the line between schmoozing of clients and lawmakers and actual illegality.
The details are key, said longtime Washington lobbyist Wright Andrews, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists.
"Many lobbyists have close friendships with members of Congress. I think there's obviously nothing wrong with that," Andrews said. "The lobbyist should not try to obtain favors in exchange for campaign contributions, or other benefits that they might be able to provide for the member. But so much is just on a case-by-case basis, you have to look at the actual situation."
Abramoff's team asked Gingrich to autograph one of his books and attended a think tank dinner that honored him, billing the islands for the time spent on both.
Abramoff entertained island officials with e-mailed jokes poking fun at politicians, including Gingrich and two fellow Republicans, former Vice President Dan Quayle and a senator who resigned amid a sex scandal, Bob Packwood (search) of Washington.
"Quayle, Gingrich and Packwood are traveling in a car together in the Midwest. A tornado comes along and whirls them up into the air and tosses them thousands of yards away. When they come to and extract themselves from the vehicle, they realize they're in the Land of Oz. They decide to go see the Wizard of Oz. Quayle says, `I'm going to ask the Wizard for a brain.' Gingrich says, `I'm going to ask the Wizard for a heart.' Packwood says, `Where's Dorothy?"' went one joke.
Abramoff's push for payments was a constant refrain -- even in a consolation e-mail he sent a Marianas official after the islands' 1997 election caused a switch in rulers.
"I am so sorry about the bad news on the campaign. I was really depressed the whole time I was there (I am now in Manila). I hate to ask, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on keeping the payments coming and getting up to date?"