WASHINGTON – Wanted: Face time with President Bush or top adviser Karl Rove. Suggested donation: $100,000. The middleman: lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Blunt e-mails that connect money and access in Washington show that prominent Republican activist Grover Norquist facilitated some administration contacts for Abramoff's clients while the lobbyist simultaneously solicited those clients for large donations to Norquist's tax-exempt group.
Those who were solicited or landed administration introductions included foreign figures and American Indian tribes, according to e-mails gathered by Senate investigators and federal prosecutors or obtained independently by The Associated Press.
"Can the tribes contribute $100,000 for the effort to bring state legislatures and those tribal leaders who have passed Bush resolutions to Washington?" Norquist wrote Abramoff in one such e-mail in July 2002.
"When I have funding, I will ask Karl Rove for a date with the president. Karl has already said 'yes' in principle and knows you organized this last time and hope to this year," Norquist wrote in the e-mail.
A Senate committee that investigated Abramoff previously aired evidence showing Bush met briefly in 2001 at the White House with some of Abramoff's tribal clients after they donated money to Norquist's group.
The 2002 e-mail about a second White House meeting and donations, however, was not disclosed. The AP obtained the text from people with access to the document.
The tribes got to meet Bush at the White House in 2002 again and then donated to Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, or ATR.
Though Norquist's own e-mail connects the $100,000 donation and the White House visit, ATR spokesman John Kartch said Norquist never offered to arrange meetings in exchange for money.
Instead, Norquist simply wanted Abramoff's tribes to help pay for a conference where lawmakers and tribal leaders passed resolutions supporting the Bush agenda, ultimately securing a brief encounter with Bush, Kartch said.
"No one from Americans for Tax Reform ever assisted Jack Abramoff in getting meetings or introductions with the White House or congressional leaders in exchange for contributions," Kartch said, suggesting some of the e-mails might be misleading.
"If you look at some of Abramoff's e-mails to third parties, they might be misread to suggest that he was misrepresenting or confusing support for a project with a specific meeting," Kartch said. "This could have been deliberate or just unclear."
Kartch said only tribes and legislators that passed resolutions supporting Bush during ATR's conference got invited to see the president for what he called a "thank you speech."
Lawyers for Abramoff declined comment.
The White House said Rove was unaware that Norquist solicited any money in connection with ATR events in both 2001 and 2002 that brought Abramoff's tribal clients and others to the White House.
"We do not solicit donations in exchange for meetings or events at the White House, and we don't have any knowledge of this activity taking place," said a White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy.
After the tribes' 2002 event with Bush, Norquist pressed Abramoff anew for tribal donations. "Jack, a few months ago you said you could get each of your Indian tribes to make a contribution. ... Is this still possible?" Norquist asked in an October 2002 e-mail.
Abramoff responded that "everyone is tapped out having given directly to the campaigns. After the election, we'll be able to get this moving."
The e-mails show Abramoff delivered, sending one check from the Mississippi Choctaw tribe in October and one in November from the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan.
Norquist and Abramoff were longtime associates who went back decades to their days in the Young Republicans movement. Norquist founded ATR to advocate lower taxes and less government. He built it into a major force in the Republican Party as the GOP seized control of Congress and the White House.
Abramoff became one of Washington's rainmaker lobbyists before allegations that he defrauded Indian tribes led to his downfall and a prison sentence. He is cooperating with prosecutors.
Kartch said at the time ATR dealt with Abramoff, it had no idea he was engaged in criminality.
The e-mails show Abramoff, on multiple occasions, asked clients for large donations to Norquist's group while Norquist invited them to ATR events that brought them face to face with top administration officials.
For instance, several months after donating $25,000 to Norquist's group, Saginaw officials attended a reception in the summer of 2003 at Norquist's home. They posed for a photo with Norquist and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
A few weeks earlier, then-Saginaw tribal chief Maynard Kahgegab Jr. had been appointed by Chao to a federal commission, according Labor Department and tribal documents obtained by the AP.
The Saginaw used the Chao photo, the commission appointment and photos they took with Bush at the White House to boast on their internal Web site about the high-level Washington access that Abramoff's team had won.
Labor officials confirmed that Chao attended the reception at Norquist's home. But they said they do not know who recommended Kahgegab to be appointed in May 2003 to the U.S. Native American Employment and Training Council. The department sought to remove the chief a year later after he lost a tribal election, documents show.
"This is one of hundreds of advisory appointments that are sent forward by agencies within the department for front office signoff," said a department spokesman, David James.
ATR's Kartch suggested Chao's contact with the Saginaw at Norquist's home was incidental. "ATR does many receptions for supporters. There were dozens of people in attendance that evening. This event was not organized specifically for any person, but was rather a widely attended general event," he said.
Norquist did make a special effort — at Abramoff's request — to introduce a British businessman and an African dignitary to Rove at another ATR event in summer 2002.
Abramoff bluntly told Norquist he was asking the African dignitary for a $100,000 donation to ATR and suggested the introduction to Rove might help secure the money.
"I have asked them for $100K for ATR," Abramoff wrote Norquist in July 2002. "If they come I'll think we'll get it. If he is there, please go up to him (he'll be African) and welcome him."
"I am assuming this is very important and therefore we are making it happen," the GOP activist wrote back, promising to introduce the two foreigners as well as a Saginaw tribal official to Rove that night.
A day later, an ecstatic Abramoff sent an e-mail thanking Norquist for "accommodating" the introductions. "I spoke with the ambassador today and he is moving my ATR request forward," the lobbyist wrote, referring to the donation.
Kartch confirmed Norquist invited the foreigners to the ATR event, but Kartch said the group never asked for, expected or received the $100,000.
It was not the first time that Abramoff sought ATR donations in connection with lobbying business. E-mails dating to 1995 show Abramoff solicited donations from clients to Norquist's group as part of lobbying efforts.
"I spoke this evening with Grover," Abramoff wrote in an October 1995 e-mail outlining how Norquist and his group could help a client on a matter before Congress.
Abramoff wrote that the lobbying help he was seeking from Norquist's group was "perfectly consistent" with ATR's position but that Norquist nonetheless wanted a donation to be made.
"He said that if they want the taxpayer movement, including him, involved on this issue and anything else which will come over the course of the year or so, they need to become a major player with ATR. He recommended that they make a $50,000 contribution to ATR," the lobbyist wrote.
Abramoff cautioned one of his colleagues that the donation needed to be "kept discreet."
"We don't want opponents to think that we are trying buy the taxpayer movement," he said.
Kartch denied that anyone at ATR asked Abramoff for the money. "ATR is not responsible for comments by Jack Abramoff to third parties," he said.