WASHINGTON – Investigators have unearthed e-mails showing Rep. Tom DeLay's office tried to help lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) get a high-level Bush administration meeting for Indian clients, an effort that succeeded after the tribes began making a quarter-million dollars in donations.
Tribal money went both to a group founded by Interior Secretary Gale Norton (search), the Cabinet secretary Abramoff was trying to meet, as well as to DeLay's personal charity.
"Do you think you could call that friend and set up a meeting," then-DeLay staffer Tony Rudy wrote to fellow House aide Thomas Pyle in a Dec. 29, 2000, e-mail titled "Gale Norton-Interior Secretary." President Bush had nominated Norton to the post the day before.
Rudy wrote Abramoff that same day promising he had "good news" about securing a meeting with Norton, forwarding information about the environmental group Norton had founded, according to e-mails obtained by investigators and reviewed by The Associated Press. Rudy's message to Abramoff was sent from Congress' official e-mail system.
Within months, Abramoff clients donated heavily to the Norton-founded group and to DeLay's personal charity. The Coushatta Indian tribe, for instance, wrote checks in March 2001 for $50,000 to the Norton group and $10,000 to the DeLay Foundation, tribal records show.
The lobbyist and the Coushattas eventually won face-to-face time with the secretary during a Sept. 24, 2001, dinner sponsored by the group she had founded.
Abramoff's clients were trying to stop a rival Indian tribe from winning Interior Department approval to build a casino.
Federal and congressional investigators have obtained the DeLay staff e-mails from Abramoff's former lobbying firm as they try to determine whether officials in Congress or the Bush administration provided government assistance in exchange for the money Abramoff's clients donated to Republican causes.
The assistance to Abramoff from DeLay's staff occurred just a few months after DeLay received political donations, free use of a Washington arena skybox to reward donors and an all-expense-paid trip to play golf in Scotland arranged by Abramoff and mostly underwritten by his clients.
DeLay's lawyer said this week his client probably didn't know about the assistance his aides gave Abramoff five years ago and does not believe his office would ever provide government assistance in exchange for political donations.
"On its face it's not unusual for staffers to assist people trying to get a meeting with an executive branch agency and that would be something a member of Congress would not typically be involved with. That's staff work," attorney Richard Cullen said in an interview.
"Tom DeLay conducts himself consistent with the highest standards of conduct and he mandated the same for his staff," Cullen said.
Shortly after the e-mail exchanges, the two DeLay aides, Rudy and Pyle, left DeLay's office for private sector jobs. Rudy went to work for Abramoff while Pyle went to work for the Koch pipeline company, Neither returned calls to their offices this week seeking comment.
Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at the Washington University law school in St. Louis, said the e-mails suggest a conflict of interest and leave the public wondering whether DeLay staffers tried to help tribes outside his home state because of Abramoff's gifts to their boss.
"It certainly suggests a kind of corruption, not the kind of corruption that can be prosecuted under the bribery law but the kind that shows a manipulation of system," Clark said.
"We can't look inside DeLay's or his staffers' minds. But we can detect what happened on the outside, and assert that a reasonable person may feel gratitude and do a favor because of that gratitude," she said.
The December 2000 e-mails show DeLay's office identified — as an avenue for winning a meeting with the new interior secretary — Norton's former political fundraiser, Italia Federici (search), and a conservative environmental group called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA).
Norton founded the group in 1999 with Federici and conservative activist Grover Norquist (search), a close ally of President Bush. When Norton was named interior secretary by Bush, Federici took over as president of CREA.
Pyle reported to Rudy that he was trying to reach a contact close to Norton and that Federici might be helpful. "Yes, I spoke to her yesterday and she is scrambling right now to get in touch with Gale. Italia helped co-found CREA with Gale and worked on her Senate campaign," Pyle wrote.
Rudy gave an update to Abramoff, forwarding Pyle's information to the lobbyist and suggesting Norquist might provide another avenue to help secure a meeting with the interior secretary.
"Good news. I think she (Norton) knows Grover," Rudy wrote in an e-mail from his official congressional account to Abramoff.
Federici helped Norton raise money for an unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in Colorado and she, Norquist and Norton formed CREA in 1999 as a tax-exempt organization highlighting Republican ideas for the environment.
Within a few months of the e-mail exchange, Abramoff's Indian tribal clients began sending more than a quarter-million dollars in donations to CREA and Federici.
Abramoff sent an e-mail to one of the tribes, the Coushattas, suggesting Interior officials wanted the donations to go to Norton's group. "I met with the Interior guys today and they were ecstatic that the tribe was going to help. If you can get me a check via federal made out to `Council for Republican Environmental Advocacy' for $50K that would be great," Abramoff wrote in one e-mail.
The tribe obliged. And a short while later, Federici left a message with Norton's office seeking a meeting for the tribe's leaders, according to evidence gathered by investigators. The meeting in April 2001 was rejected by Norton's staff, Interior officials told AP.
Coushatta tribal counsel Jimmy Faircloth told AP that Abramoff instructed the tribe to give donations to CREA of $50,000 in March 2001 and $100,000 in March 2002 "for the purpose of building a lobbying presence in Washington."
The tribe eventually scored face-to-face time with Norton and her top deputy, Steven Griles, on Sept. 24, 2001, at a private fundraising dinner arranged by CREA. Tribal chairman Lovelin Poncho and Abramoff sat at Norton's table while tribal attorney Kathy Van Hoof sat with Griles, Faircloth said.
The Coushattas weren't alone in donating to CREA. Federal investigators have tracked more than a quarter-million dollars in tribal money to the group, including donations from the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan and the Tiguas of Texas.