WASHINGTON – At the behest of a lobbyist now under criminal investigation, two Indian tribes paid $25,000 each to a conservative tax-exempt group to underwrite an event that scored tribal leaders a private meeting with President Bush.
The arrangement in 2001 between the tribes, lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) and the Americans for Tax Reform (search) group, led by Bush supporter Grover Norquist, was confirmed by tribal lawyers and documents showing the solicitation of money and promise of a meeting.
"The exposure would be incredible and would be very helpful," Abramoff wrote to one of the tribe's attorneys in asking for the donation. "One of the things we need to do is get the leaders of the tribe [ideally the chief] in front of the president as much as possible."
At the time, the Coushatta Tribe (search) of Louisiana and Mississippi Band of Choctaw (search) were seeking to protect their casino gaming revenues from tougher labor regulations and to block changes in federal gaming laws that might interfere with their casinos.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether Abramoff and a lobbying partner overcharged Indian tribes millions of dollars for their work.
Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to discuss the 2001 White House meetings. In the past, Abramoff has denied wrongdoing and argued his clients got their money's worth for his work.
Norquist's group has been fighting a subpoena from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee demanding documents showing its relationship with Abramoff and the tribes. It confirmed some tribal leaders along with state legislators attended the 2001 event and got a brief meeting with Bush.
"In the past, the president has offered a brief thank you to participants in the State Legislative Advisory Project," group spokesman Chris Butler said, but he declined to elaborate or identify the donors who underwrote the event.
As the Senate and criminal investigations of Abramoff heated up earlier this year, Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to the Coushatta tribe clarifying that the White House meeting was not provided in return for its contributions.
The group's letter said that state legislators and representatives of Indian tribes who pass resolutions backing Bush's policies and the group's position on issues are invited to an "Appreciation Event" where they can meet with House and Senate leaders and Bush.
Former President Clinton was heavily criticized by Republicans for rewarding big donors with invitations to special White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom. But those donors usually contributed directly to the party.
The chief lawyer for the Federal Elections Commission during the Clinton fund-raising controversy said the Abramoff episode demonstrates how special interests win access through money — but this time the donations went to an outside group aligned with the White House.
"What this is, is the president helping out Americans for Tax Reform by agreeing to speak at their event," Larry Noble said. "The quid pro quo is ATR helps out the president with support of his agenda at the same time ATR is able to sell it to lobbyists and others as something that needs to be underwritten."
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians each contributed $25,000 to Norquist's group. Two other entities, which the group declined to identify, also helped underwrite the event that included the meeting with Bush.
Abramoff enlisted the tribes as sponsors through e-mails from Norquist and forwarded by Abramoff, attorneys for the tribes said.
Copies of e-mails sent to the Coushatta tribe were published in the Texas Observer, a political news magazine, and the tribes' attorneys confirmed the information.
Lovelin Poncho, who is stepping down after 20 years as Coushatta tribal chairman, recalled meeting with Bush for about 15 minutes, his attorney said. An itinerary said the meeting was in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Poncho recalls Abramoff also attended, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition he not be named.
The White House has no record of the Coushattas or Abramoff at the May 9, 2001, meeting, spokeswoman Erin Healy said. Records show representatives from the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas and the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana met with Bush, along with 21 state legislators, Healy said.
Officials for the Kickapoo and Chitimacha tribes didn't return calls seeking comment.
Bryant Rogers, an attorney for the Choctaws, said e-mails sent to the Choctaw tribe did not mention a White House meeting. Instead, Abramoff solicited the contribution as support for the ongoing anti-tax efforts of Americans for Tax Reform.
"The Choctaws contributed $25,000, viewing this as support for a general series of anti-tax meetings that [Americans for Tax Reform] had routinely sponsored. However, neither Chief Martin nor any other tribal representative was present at any of these meetings on May 9, and in particular didn't go to the White House meeting," Rogers said.
Abramoff's association with Norquist dates to their college years when they worked together in the College Republicans club. They both have ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and were instrumental in helping Republicans take over Congress in the 1990s.
Norquist also has close ties with the Bush White House, including political adviser Karl Rove. Abramoff was a $100,000 plus fundraiser for the president.