The White House said Monday night that Rove remembers meeting Abramoff at a 1990s political meeting and considered the lobbyist a "casual acquaintance" since President Bush took office in 2001.
New questions have arisen about Abramoff's ties to the White House since a photo emerged over the weekend showing Abramoff with Bush. The White House would not release the photo or any others that Bush had taken with Abramoff. Also surfacing were the contents of an e-mail from Abramoff to Washingtonian magazine claiming he had met briefly with the president nearly a dozen times and that Bush knew him well enough to make joking references to Abramoff's family.
Three former business associates of Abramoff, who worked with the lobbyist in various roles between 2001 and 2004, told The Associated Press that Abramoff routinely mentioned Rove when talking about his influence inside the White House.
One said he was present when Abramoff took a call from Rove's office to confirm a White House meeting had been approved between Malaysia's prime minister and Bush in May 2002. Abramoff was being paid by Malaysia for helping it in Washington, according to evidence the Senate has made public.
All three associates would describe the Abramoff comments only on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation of Abramoff's work and fears that speaking out could affect their current businesses. At least one said he had been interviewed by the FBI.
Abramoff was a $100,000 fundraiser for Bush and lobbying records obtained by the AP show his lobbying team logged nearly 200 meetings with the administration during its first 10 months in office on behalf of one of his clients, the Northern Mariana Islands.
The contacts between Abramoff's team and the administration included meetings with Attorney General John Ashcroft and policy advisers to Vice President Dick Cheney, the AP reported last year.
Abramoff's former assistant, Susan Ralston, went to work for Rove in 2001. Abramoff's legal team declined comment Monday night.
According to one of the three former associates, frequently Abramoff's cell phone would ring and the lobbyist would tell the associate that the White House was calling. To prove that he wasn't making up what he was telling the associate, Abramoff occasionally would hold up the phone so that the associate could see the incoming call was indeed a White House phone number.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty in a fraud and bribery conspiracy case and is cooperating with the investigation into those in Congress and the administration he used to lobby.
Asked about the three former Abramoff associates' account, the White House said Rove shared a common past with Abramoff as leaders of a young Republicans group decades ago.
"Mr. Rove remembers they had met at a political event in the 1990s," White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said. "Since then, he would describe him as a casual acquaintance."
Healy said Rove has "no recollection" of talking to Abramoff about the Malaysian prime minister's meeting in May 2002. She said Bush first met the prime minister at a foreign summit in October 2001 and that the 2002 meeting in the Oval Office was "another opportunity to get together to discuss the war on terror."