WASHINGTON – Nearly three dozen members of Congress, including leaders from both parties, pressed the government to reject a Louisiana Indian casino while they collected large donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Many intervened with letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton within days of receiving money from tribes represented by Abramoff or using the lobbyist's restaurant for fundraising, an Associated Press review of campaign records, IRS records and congressional correspondence found.
Lawmakers said their intervention had nothing to do with Abramoff, and the timing of donations was a coincidence. They said they wrote letters because they opposed the expansion of tribal gaming — even though they continued to accept donations from casino-running tribes.
Many lived far from Louisiana and had no constituent interest in the casino dispute.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, held a fundraiser at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in Washington on June 3, 2003, that collected at least $21,500 for his Keep Our Majority political action committee from the lobbyist's firm and tribal clients.
Seven days later, Hastert wrote Norton urging her to reject the Jena tribe of Choctaw Indians' request for a new casino. Hastert's three top House deputies also signed the letter.
Approving the Jena application or others like it would "run counter to congressional intent," Hastert's June 10, 2003, letter warned Norton.
It was exactly what Abramoff's tribal clients wanted. The tribes, including the Louisiana Coushattas and Mississippi Choctaw, were trying to block the Jena's gambling hall for fear it would undercut business at their own casinos.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Norton on March 5, 2002, also signed by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The next day, the Coushattas issued a $5,000 check to Reid's tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund. A second Abramoff tribe sent another $5,000 to Reid's group. Reid ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations between 2001 and 2004.
In the midst of the congressional letter-writing campaign, the Bush administration rejected the Jena's casino on technical grounds. The tribe persisted, eventually winning Interior approval but the casino now is tied up in a court dispute.
Congressional ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in performing their official duties and accepting political money.
That requirement was made famous a decade ago during the Keating Five scandal when five lawmakers were criticized for intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating while receiving money from the failed savings and loan operator.
The Abramoff donations dwarf those made by Keating. At least 33 lawmakers wrote letters to Norton and got more than $830,000 in Abramoff-related donations as the lobbying unfolded between 2001 and 2004, AP found.
"This is one of the largest examples we've had to date where congressional action was predicated on money being given for the action," said Kent Cooper, who reviewed lawmakers' campaign reports for two decades as the Federal Election Commission's chief of public disclosure.
Cooper, who now runs the Political Money Line Web site that tracks fundraising, said "the speed in which this money was turned around" after the letters makes the Abramoff matter more serious than previous controversies that tarnished Congress.
Lawmakers contacted by AP said their intervention had nothing to do with Abramoff's fundraising, and instead reflected their long-held concerns about tribal gaming expansion.
"There is absolutely no connection between the letter and the fundraising," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
Hastert ultimately collected more than $100,000 in donations from Abramoff's firm and tribal clients between 2001 and 2004. His office said he never discussed the matter with Abramoff, but long opposed expanding Indian gambling off reservations and was asked to send the letter by Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.
McCrery sent his own letter as well, and collected more than $36,000 in Abramoff-onnected donations.
"We've always opposed these things, in our backyard, in our state, someplace else," said Michael Stokke, Hastert's deputy chief of staff.
Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, declined comment. The lobbyist has been indicted on fraud charges.
Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Abramoff's fundraising influenced members of Congress or the Bush administration, and whether anyone tried to conceal their dealings with Abramoff. For instance:
—Hastert failed for two years to disclose his use of Abramoff's restaurant the week before his letter or to reimburse for it as legally required. Hastert blames a paperwork oversight and recently corrected it.
—Louisiana Sen. David Vitter received $6,000 from Abramoff tribes from 1999 to 2001 and refunded it the day before he sent one of his letters to Norton in February 2002. He also used Abramoff's restaurant for a September 2003 fund-raiser but failed to reimburse for it until this year.
—The Coushattas wrote two checks to Rep. Tom DeLay's groups in 2001 and 2002, shortly before the GOP leader wrote Norton. But the tribe was asked by Abramoff to take back the checks and route the money to other GOP groups. In all, DeLay received at least $57,000 in Abramoff and tribal donations between 2001 and 2004.
In one letter obtained by AP, 27 lawmakers told Norton she should reject the Jena casino because gambling was a societal blight. But within weeks, several of the authors had accepted donations from Abramoff's casino-operating tribes. All but eight eventually got Abramoff-related donations or used his restaurant for political events.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, received four donations totaling $5,500 from casino-operating tribes represented by Abramoff exactly one month and a day after he signed the Feb. 27, 2002, group letter.
"If they want to give a contribution to support Republican candidates more power to them. That doesn't mean we have to support what they are doing," said Guy Harrison, a Sessions spokesman.