June 10, 2008 in Nation/World

Panel says Abramoff’s sway underplayed

Marisa Taylor McClatchy
 

WASHINGTON – Convicted superlobbyist Jack Abramoff influenced White House actions while his firm wooed administration officials over expensive meals and plied them with box tickets to sporting events, according to a House of Representatives committee report released Monday.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said Monday that it had received new White House documents and testimony that confirmed 80 White House contacts with Abramoff and uncovered 70 others despite White House assertions that Abramoff had vastly overblown his administration connections. Abramoff, who’s cooperating with federal prosecutors after pleading guilty in an expanding corruption investigation, previously reported that his former firm had more than 400 contacts with White House officials.

The House report obtained photos of Abramoff meeting President Bush on six occasions, including political receptions. Bush has said he doesn’t remember Abramoff, and the White House has refused to release the photos. The committee posted low-quality versions of them on its Web site Monday after receiving them from the White House.

“The new documents and testimony show that Mr. Abramoff had personal contact with President Bush, that high-level White House officials held Mr. Abramoff and his associates in high regard and solicited recommendations from Mr. Abramoff on policy matters,” the committee said.

The committee added, however, that it had “obtained no evidence” that Abramoff lobbied the president directly.

The report’s release comes as the criminal investigation into the lobbying scandal appears to be regaining momentum in court after a brief lull.

In April, former senior Justice Department official Robert Coughlin II acknowledged that he did favors for Abramoff’s clients while accepting free meals and tickets to sports games paid for by Abramoff’s former firm. Last week, a former congressional aide of former Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for accepting gifts in exchange for taking legislative action on behalf of Abramoff’s firm.

Committee members acknowledged that they couldn’t determine whether White House officials had paid for their own meals, although they said they had confirmed that meetings took place. The committee also verified that some officials had accepted and even solicited tickets to sporting events from Abramoff’s firm.

It saw confirmation that Abramoff had been reimbursed in only one case. The White House provided the committee with a copy of a $150 check from former presidential adviser Karl Rove, who had accepted tickets to a basketball championship in 2002.

In some cases, Abramoff and his firm had direct influence over government decisions, including persuading White House officials to push for the removal of State Department official Alan Stayman, the committee concluded. Abramoff wanted Stayman removed because Stayman had supported labor law changes in the Northern Mariana Islands – an Abramoff client.

White House officials also relied on input from Abramoff when making decisions about political appointees at the Department of Interior at the beginning of the administration, the committee said.

White House officials have denied that Abramoff held any sway over the administration. They have asserted that Abramoff’s claims of White House contact – as reported in billing records to Indian tribe clients – demonstrated his propensity to exaggerate in order to overcharge clients.

On Monday, White House spokesman Tony Fratto called the report “warmed-up leftovers” and questioned the news media’s interest in it.

“There’s nothing new of significance in it,” Fratto said. “If anything, the so-called report confirms that whatever Abramoff’s efforts, he was decidedly unsuccessful in trying to influence administration policy.”

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