WASHINGTON – More than a dozen members of Congress intervened to help Indian tribes win federal school construction money while accepting political donations from the tribes, their lobbyist Jack Abramoff or his firm.
The lawmakers hailed from both parties, including House Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Charles Taylor, R-N.C., and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the top Democrat on the Senate committee currently investigating Abramoff.
Most wrote letters that pressed a reluctant Bush administration to renew a program that provided tribes federal money for building schools. Others worked the congressional budget process to ensure it happened, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
And most received donations, ranging from $1,000 to more than $74,000, in the weeks just before or after their intervention. One used Abramoff's restaurant for a fund-raiser a month after a letter.
As a group, they collected more than $440,000 from Abramoff, his firm or his tribal clients between 2001 and 2004, when Abramoff represented the tribes.
In Washington, special interests with business before Congress commonly provide donations to lawmakers as they lobby.
But ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest while performing official duties, a requirement that became famous a decade ago during the Keating Five scandal when several got in trouble for pressuring regulators on behalf of Charles Keating while taking donations from the savings and loan operator.
Lawmakers said their letters had nothing to do with Abramoff and instead were prompted by their desire to keep the government's Indian school building program alive so tribes in their own states might one day benefit. The timing of donations, they said, were a coincidence.
"It really had nothing to do with Jack Abramoff. Senator Dorgan had a personal interest in the program and how it benefits tribes at large and the three affiliated tribes in his state," Dorgan chief of staff Bernie Toon said, echoing comments from many lawmakers.
A former federal prosecutor said the size of the donations and their close proximity to official actions could impact the current Justice Department investigation of Abramoff. The lobbyist has been charged with fraud in a Florida case and an associate has pleaded guilty in Washington and is cooperating with investigators.
"We're going to see an awakened Justice Department after years of turning a blind eye to the tie between legislative action and campaign donations," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Sloan, who runs a watchdog group. "Members of Congress ought to be in general quaking today and thinking a little more about what they're willing to do for those contributions."
Dorgan, along with Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., signed a Feb. 11, 2002, letter asking the Senate Appropriations Committee for a "long-term extension" of funding for the Indian school building program.
One of Abramoff's client tribes, the Mississippi Choctaw, was using the program, and his team was lobbying furiously to extend it for other tribal clients, including the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan. The Saginaw prevailed the next year. The Burns-Dorgan letter specifically mentions the Choctaw.
Nine days later, Dorgan's campaign got $2,000 from the Choctaw and by late spring Dorgan's political action committee had received $17,000 more from three other Abramoff tribes and his firm. In all, Dorgan got nearly $95,000 in Abramoff-related money between 2001 and 2004.
Asked whether Dorgan should have disqualified himself from the Senate investigation of Abramoff, Toon said the senator had pursued the investigation in an "aggressive and bipartisan way" and didn't need to step aside.
Burns also benefited handsomely. In the quarter he sent the 2002 letter with Dorgan, Burns collected $70,000 in Abramoff tribal donations to one of his political groups, Friends of the Big Sky PAC, and an additional $2,000 to his campaign.
A year later, Burns would co-write a second letter with Taylor, dated May 16, 2003, specifically pressing the Interior Department to approve funding for the Saginaw.
In the weeks before, Burns got $1,000 from the Saginaw and $5,000 from a second Abramoff tribe. A month later, the Saginaw sent another $2,000.
In all, Burns collected nearly $150,000 in Abramoff-related donations between 2001 and 2004. Two of his Senate staffers also accepted an Abramoff-arranged trip to the 2001 Super Bowl in Florida.
The Montana senator's office said he wrote the letters at the request of Michigan lawmakers who represented the Saginaw and wasn't influenced by tribal largess. "He had no knowledge, that I'm aware of, about the Saginaw Chippewa donations, either immediately before or following his letter. There wasn't a quid pro quo," spokesman James Pendleton said.
Taylor, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees tribal funding, signed the 2003 Burns letter and confirmed he sent an earlier letter on March 18, 2002 signed by several colleagues. Twelve days before, Taylor received $2,000 from an Abramoff tribe.
Taylor's office said he never met with Abramoff but did have contact with one of Abramoff's associates. Taylor said he intervened because he wanted to preserve the program so the Eastern Band of Cherokee in his state could eventually win money.
The Cherokee tribe, which won funding this year, donated $1,000 to Taylor a few months after his 2002 letter. "I receive support from many tribes across the nation," Taylor said. "My efforts ... are for the benefit of every tribe, not simply those who chose to support my campaigns."
The four others who signed Taylor's letter also got help. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., for instance, used Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in Washington for a campaign fund-raiser one month after the letter, paying $2,907 for food. "The congressman has never even met Jack Abramoff. We used his facility, we got a bill and we paid the bill just like any other member of the public," Tiahrt spokesman Chuck Knapp said.
The pattern of donations and letters matches a similar Abramoff effort reported by AP last week.
In that instance, 33 lawmakers wrote letters between 2001 and 2004 pressing the Interior Department to reject a rival Indian casino that Abramoff's clients wanted defeated, while collecting more than $830,000. The Senate and House ethics committees were asked Tuesday to investigate.
As they lobbied to win school funding, Abramoff and his team kept a tally of congressional assistance. One e-mail noted a Dorgan staffer planned to contact Interior to discuss the issue.
A top agency official "is actively trying to kill" the funding, Abramoff was told. That e-mail identified a half-dozen letters written or signed by 14 lawmakers on behalf of the tribes.
One was written Jan. 23, 2003 by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. Dave Camp, all of Michigan, on the Saginaw's behalf.
Stabenow got $2,000 from the Saginaw in March 2002, around the time Burns' sent his first letter requested by the Michigan lawmakers. She later thanked Burns in a Senate speech for his help. She received $2,000 more from the Saginaw about six months after her 2003 letter.
Camp got $7,500 in donations from Abramoff's firm and the Saginaw shortly after the 2003 letter, and a total of about $24,500 between 2001 and 2004. Levin got small donations from Abramoff's firm and the Saginaw in 2001 and 2002.
"There's no connection between the donations and the letter," Stabenow spokeswoman Angela Benander said.
Another letter, according to Abramoff's e-mails, came from Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee (news, bio, voting record) and Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who run a congressional group on tribal issues. Hayworth got about $64,520 and Kildee $10,500 in Abramoff-related donations between 2001 and 2004.
"I can assure you the letter was not related to the contributions he had accepted previously or following that letter. He does not do quid pro quo business," Hayworth spokesman Larry VanHoose said.