Abramoff travel ties

Disgraced lobbyist's firm, clients sponsored more than a dozen congressional trips

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Playing a round on Scotland's historic Old Course and watching the Chitimacha Louisiana Open are two very different golfing experiences, but they have one common connection: Jack Abramoff.

Much like Rep. Tom DeLay's St. Andrews junket, records show this trip was financed by a group with connections to the disgraced lobbyist. Greenberg Traurig — the law/lobbying firm that Abramoff worked for at the time — is listed as the sponsor on the travel disclosure form bearing John's signature. Whether Abramoff had a role in coordinating or paying for the trip isn't known, but he was lobbying Congress on behalf of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana on issues surrounding the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act at the time.In late March 2003, Samuel Jacob Roché, an aide to then-Rep. Chris John, D-La., took an almost $1,500 privately sponsored tripto tour the Chitimacha Indian Reservation that was capped with a free ticket to a PGA tournament.

A review of travel documents by the Center for Public Integrity turned up another congressional trip financed by Greenberg Traurig: A summer 2001 visit to Puerto Rico by David Lopez, then chief of staff to Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., that cost more than $1,300.Roché did not return calls seeking comment on the trip.

These two trips are apparent violations of congressional ethics rules, which prohibit lawmakers and their aides from taking travel sponsored by both "registered lobbyists" and "lobbying firms."

The Center called Greenberg Traurig seeking comment on the two trips. In an e-mail reply, spokeswoman Kersten Norlin did not respond to questions about the firm's travel sponsorship, but instead spoke to Abramoff's conduct.

"The acts of Jack Abramoff were illegal and a result of his efforts to deceive his clients and his former firm," Norlin wrote. She added that Abramoff's plea agreement exposed "additional conduct" that was unknown to Greenberg Traurig.

In its review of filings, the Center found that at least 11 other congressional travelers took trips between January 2000 and June 2005 financed by Abramoff's then-clients. The groups were listed as the trip sponsors on the travelers' disclosure forms and as Abramoff's clients on lobbying disclosure forms he filed that cover the travel dates.

The trips sponsored by Abramoff's former clients and Greenberg Traurig have a combined value of more than $15,000.

"It definitely does not reinforce your faith in the process," Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy for Common Cause, said of the trips sponsored by the lobbying firm. "For them to put down this information, it shows that either they were not aware of the rule or they did not care about the rule."

In 2004, a year after the Greenberg Traurig trip taken by his aide, John introduced a bill to modify the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Months earlier, Abramoff was lobbying on the same law, according to documents filed with Congress. The bill, which didn't pass, would have changed definitions in the act, potentially affecting gaming facilities within 50 miles of reservations.

"Geographically, it [the legislation] had nothing to do with the Chitimacha Tribe," John told the Center. "Indian tribes could set up casinos outside their historically connected lands and that was wrong. That is what this legislation was really trying to resolve."

John also used Abramoff's Washington restaurant, Signatures, as the site for a May 2002 fundraiser for his Gumbo PAC, according to a January 2006 Gannett News Service report.

Doolittle's office would not answer questions about the trip to Puerto Rico reported to be sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, and the Center did not find any direct involvement by Abramoff in coordinating the trip.

But there appears to have been a different link between Doolittle and Abramoff. Since the Abramoff scandal broke, reporters have asked why the congressman wrote two letters to the Department of Interior on behalf of Indian tribes Abramoff's firm represented, and why he has refused to return campaign contributions linked to the shamed lobbyist.

Doolittle's campaign Web site has responded to the media's allegations, posting a point-by-point rebuttal answering those and other charges.

Beneficial tariff bill

In 2002, when Abramoff was a lobbyist representing Atofina Chemicals Inc., the chemical company paid almost $3,000 for a trip to France for then-Rep. Robert Borski Jr., D-Pa., and his wife. On the trip Borski met with company executives in Paris. Six days after he returned, he sponsored legislation to repeal trade-related taxes on a chemical imported by the company.

The bill, which did not pass, would have allowed Atofina to import millions of dollars of the fungicide Topsin from Japan without paying a tariff of almost 8 percent. If approved, it could have saved the company a minimum of $138,370 a year, according to a document filed with the House Ways and Means Committee that listed a Greenberg Traurig lobbyist who coordinated with Abramoff on lobbying issues for Atofina.

Borski left Congress in 2003 and opened his own lobbying shop about a year later. One of his clients was Arkema Inc., the company that emerged after Atofina was dissolved by parent company TOTAL S.A.

"Atofina had a long and important presence in the Philadelphia region as a major employer and a cornerstone of the region's chemical industry," Trumbore said in a statement released on behalf of Borski. "The former Congressman regularly worked with the company to make sure Atofina's Philadelphia operations remained competitive."Borski did not return phone calls from the Center, but one of his firm's fellow lobbyists, Mark Trumbore, defended his actions regarding the legislation.

Tribes gamble on travel

Similar disclosures listing Abramoff's clients as travel sponsors included one for Alisha Jeansonne, an aide to then-Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who took a $1,500 trip to an unspecified destination in 2003 courtesy of the Chitimacha Tribe. At the time, Abramoff and his firm were paid $120,000 for the year by the tribe to lobby the federal government on several issues, including "energy and water appropriations."

A little more than a week after the trip, Tauzin introduced an energy bill that contained appropriations relevant to Abramoff's client. While the final bill had several provisions that helped Indian tribes, the original bill Tauzin submitted contained a section to give Indian tribes and other organizations development grants together totaling as much as $20 million.

"The personal aide's trip had absolutely no impact on energy legislation the Energy and Commerce Committee was considering in 2003," Ken Johnson, the committee's former deputy chief of staff, wrote in a statement issued on behalf of Tauzin. "This young staffer had no part in any discussion regarding the development funds provision. It is also important to point out that Chairman Billy Tauzin never met Jack Abramoff and, in fact, voted against the tribal gambling provision included in the Energy Act of 2003." Jeansonne could not be reached for comment.

Abramoff-related trips also were paid for by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Cherokee Nation. Some of these trips were taken by aides of longtime proponents of Native American causes.

Three staff members from the office of former Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., and an employee of Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., appear to have been sent on trips to Oklahoma by the Cherokee Nation during the same week. In 2003, Cherokee Nation Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Oklahoma tribe in charge of casinos, was paying Abramoff and his lobbying firm $120,000 to influence Congress.

Carson, who is a Cherokee tribal member, has been a strong supporter of Indian rights. During his legislative career, he sponsored and co-sponsored more than 80 bills and resolutions that dealt at least in part with Indian issues. During the year of his staff's trips, he wrote legislation to make Indian employment tax credits permanent and issue bonds to build and modernize Indian schools.

Carson told the Center that the trips taken by his staff were related to his constituency and not connected to Abramoff or his lobbying firm.

"I represented one of the two most Native American districts in the nation," he said. "We never had any idea that Jack Abramoff did any work for the Cherokee Nation."

Long before Abramoff's indictment, he came under scrutiny for allegations that he had bilked Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars. Carson said that he is working for the Cherokee Nation now that he has left Congress and believes Native Americans have been unfairly portrayed in the scandal.

"The Indians are caught up in all of this controversy," he said. "It wasn't the tribes that were doing anything improperly; it was Abramoff that was doing things wrongly."

The Center found disclosure filings for five trips listing Abramoff clients as travel sponsors. They include:

  • An $826 trip in June 2000 for an aide to Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., paid for by Pitney Bowes
  • A trip costing about $1,000 in October and November 2003 for an aide to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., paid for by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
  • A $448 trip in August 2002 for an aide to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., paid for by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
  • Two December 2003 trips, costing $1,949 and $2,129, for aides to Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., paid for by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Center researcher Robert Brodsky contributed to this report.

 

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