WASHINGTON – New evidence is emerging that the top Democrat on the Senate committee currently investigating Jack Abramoff got political money arranged by the lobbyist back in 2002 shortly after the lawmaker took action favorable to Abramoff's tribal clients.
A lawyer for the Louisiana Coushatta Indians told The Associated Press that Abramoff instructed the tribe to send $5,000 to Sen. Byron Dorgan's political group just three weeks after the North Dakota Democrat urged fellow senators to fund a tribal school program Abramoff's clients wanted to use.
The check was one of about five dozen the Coushattas listed in a tribal ledger as being issued on March 6, 2002, to various lawmakers' campaigns and political causes at the instruction of Abramoff, tribal attorney Jimmy Faircloth said Monday.
Many of the recipients were lawmakers who had just written letters to the Bush administration or Congress supportive of Abramoff's tribal causes, documents show.
"I am confident of that fact," Faircloth said when asked whether Abramoff had requested the donations listed in a tribal ledger obtained by the AP.
The revelation came as Dorgan took to the offensive Monday, saying there was no connection between the $20,000 in donations he got from Abramoff's firm and tribal clients in spring 2002 and a February 2002 letter he wrote urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund the tribal school building program.
Dorgan's letter noted that the Mississippi Choctaw, one of Abramoff's clients, had successfully used the program and requested lawmakers consider long-term funding for it. It made no mention of Abramoff or any of his other tribes that were interested in the program.
Dorgan sharply criticized an AP story last week that divulged he and about a dozen other lawmakers had gotten Abramoff-related donations around the time they sent letters supporting the school building program.
Dorgan told a news conference in North Dakota he had never met Abramoff, did not know about the donations from the lobbyist's clients around the time of his letter and saw no reason to step aside from the Senate Indian Affairs committee investigation of Abramoff.
"I don't have any idea what was contributed to me, or by whom. No contribution has been made to me that was ever represented as a contribution coming from Mr. Abramoff, or any relationship to things that he was involved in," Dorgan said when quizzed about the $20,000 in donations.
Dorgan said he wrote the letter because he supported the tribal school construction program and believed tribes in his state might benefit. "The Bush administration wanted to shut the program down. I disagreed. The program saves the federal government money and gets results. That makes sense to me," he said.
Dorgan's staff said Dorgan believes the letter was drafted by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who also signed it and got similar donations from Abramoff's clients in the same time frame.
For instance, the Coushattas' check ledger shows the tribe on March 6, 2002, wrote checks for $5,000 to Dorgan's political group, called the Great Plains Leadership Fund, and $25,000 to Burns. That money ultimately landed in Burns' Friends of the Big Sky political group, records show.
Other checks listed as being issued that day were made out to groups or campaigns associated with Sens. Trent Lott, Mary Landrieu, Harry Reid and John Breaux and Reps. Tom DeLay, Charles Taylor and Pete Session, all of whom wrote letters favorable to Abramoff tribal client causes, the ledger shows.
Those lawmakers, like Dorgan, have denied any connection between the letters and the donations.
"The suggestion in the story that I may have supported that school construction program because of Jack Abramoff or because of campaign contributions from Indian tribes is clearly and despicably wrong," Dorgan said.
Dorgan's spokesman, Barry E. Piatt, said he believed his boss had pursued the congressional investigation of Abramoff aggressively.
Asked why that investigation hasn't focused more on donations to lawmakers who wrote letters favorable to Abramoff's clients, Piatt said, "They're investigating what appears to be massive fraud, and there's lots of ground to cover and it is still early."
Dorgan's office also corrected one piece of information it provided last week. In an interview last Wednesday, Dorgan chief of staff Bernie Toon told the AP that congressional aide Peter Kiefhaber worked for Dorgan's subcommittee in late January 2003.
Kiefhaber did work for the Democratic staff of the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee at the time and Dorgan was a member, but Dorgan didn't formally take over as the top Democrat on the panel until March 4, 2003, his office said Monday.