Just days before George W. Bush took office in 2001, lobbyist Jack Abramoff was busily working with Ralph Reed, his longtime friend, political sidekick, and business associate, to place a key ally in the Interior Department.
His old e-mails to the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff have dogged Ralph Reed on the campaign trail.
Reed, an elite "Pioneer" fundraiser for the Bush campaign and a campaign adviser, had already helped Abramoff land his own plum slot on Bush's Interior transition team. Abramoff coveted the slot because Interior was overseeing the lobbyist's two biggest clients at the time -- the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Now Abramoff, who had hired Reed in 1999 and 2000 to run anti-gambling drives in Alabama to fend off threats to the Choctaws' casino profits, was looking for more help. This time, Abramoff was trying to secure a job at Interior for Mark Zachares, a former secretary of labor in the Marianas government.
On January 11, 2001, Abramoff e-mailed Reed. "I was thinking about this appointment" to the Office of Insular Affairs at Interior, Abramoff wrote. "I know it is perhaps a bizarre request, but considering how quickly I was named to the transition advisory team thanks to your request, perhaps it would be possible to ask Karl [Rove, the president's chief political adviser]... that they should appoint Mark Zachares to head the Office of Insular Affairs.... Do you think we could get this favor from Karl? It would be my big ask for sure."
Reed replied quickly: "It never hurts to ask. What's the next move?" Later that day, Reed sounded even more eager. "Just let me know who to call, when to call, and what to say. And while you're at it get me another client! NOW!"
On March 6, Abramoff met with Rove for about half an hour and pushed for Zachares, according to Abramoff's former lobbying colleagues at the firm Greenberg Traurig and to Secret Service logs released earlier this year. But Rove didn't come through, and Zachares didn't get the job.
One former Abramoff colleague said he wasn't surprised that the effort failed, because Zachares was "too radioactive" and had "the worst possible profile" for the job. Zachares had received $10,000 from an Abramoff-run charity, getting half of the money before he held his Marianas job and half after. What's more, Democrats in Congress, with help from some GOP members, had mounted a bruising but unsuccessful fight to impose U.S. minimum-wage laws on the Marianas. The islands, a U.S. territory located in the western Pacific Ocean, paid immigrant workers in their garment industry wages of just $3 an hour.
Lisa Baron, the communications director for Ralph Reed, who's now a candidate in Georgia's July 18 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, said in a statement, "Ralph Reed receives unsolicited requests for help all the time, and given his years of service on the Bush political team, it is not surprising he received them. But to his recollection, he did not speak with anyone at the White House regarding these issues. He has the highest regard for the president and those who serve him and is confident that such decisions are made on the public policy merits alone."
Abramoff had been prodding Reed for help at Interior even before Bush won the election. In an e-mail to Reed on October 24, 2000, Abramoff broached the idea of Reed helping him get on the transition team. "This would be really key for future clients for both of us. Let's discuss." Reed replied: "OK."
Reed's previously undisclosed role in Abramoff's drive to get Zachares a job and his help in getting Abramoff appointed to the Interior task force highlight the tight political and business ties that existed between the two men.
Those ties have made headlines, embroiling Reed in the Washington political corruption scandal involving one of his oldest friends in the conservative movement. The bonds between the two have frayed. On January 3, Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts -- conspiracy to bribe public officials, tax evasion, and bilking four Indian casino-owning tribes out of tens of millions of dollars. Abramoff's plea deal required him to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the wide-ranging corruption probe that has focused on several members of Congress, on Capitol Hill aides, on former aides-turned-lobbyists, and on at least one former high-level Interior official.
There is no indication that prosecutors are scrutinizing Reed, and he has insisted that he's done nothing improper.
But information keeps surfacing about Reed and Abramoff's close ties. In a second previously undisclosed e-mail exchange on September 10, 2001, Abramoff asked Reed for help with a controversial client that Abramoff had just signed up, the government of Malaysia.
Abramoff was trying to improve ties between Kuala Lumpur and Washington, a daunting task because Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was under fire from the State Department and some human-rights groups for his government's jailing of political opponents and for his anti-Semitic views. Mahathir wanted a chance to talk with President Bush at an upcoming meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and to secure a Washington meeting with Bush.
That day, Abramoff e-mailed Reed: "I have a one-month subcontract for you if you can help me. We need to get Rove to see if we can break through the current posture of State on Malaysia and the PM meeting with Bush at the APEC meeting at the beginning of October.... If it works there will be a lot more." Reed wrote back, "Sure."
The next day brought the September 11 terrorist attacks. Malaysia became an early ally in the war on terrorism, and colleagues of Abramoff say he used that argument in part to overcome concerns about Mahathir's track record. Bush and Mahathir did talk briefly at the APEC meeting, and Mahathir did meet with Bush in Washington on May 14, 2002.
Baron, Reed's communications director, said that Reed had no recollection about talking to anyone at the White House about Malaysia.
From mid-2001 through mid-2002, Kuala Lumpur paid about $1.2 million to a think tank with a Rehoboth Beach, Del., address that was run by Michael Scanlon. Scanlon is Abramoff's former public-relations partner who has also pleaded guilty to defrauding four tribes and corrupting public officials.
Other new details about Reed's highly lucrative grassroots lobbying against gambling projects that threatened Abramoff's two biggest tribal casino clients surfaced last month in a final report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which spent two years probing Abramoff's lobbying activities. The report disclosed that Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies in Duluth, Ga., received a total of $5.3 million from the Choctaws and the Louisiana Coushattas tribe. The payments came from Preston Gates & Ellis, where Abramoff worked in the late 1990s, and from two Scanlon-run entities, the American International Center and the consulting firm Capitol Campaign Strategies.
But the committee's report didn't include another $1 million that was funneled to Century Strategies through anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. The Mississippi Choctaws provided that money in 1999 for a successful drive in Alabama spearheaded by Reed and other religious conservatives against a proposed state lottery and a video-poker bill in the state Legislature that threatened Choctaw revenues.
In its report, the Indian Affairs Committee released other new details about Abramoff and Reed's use of conduits to send money to Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who was anxious to ensure that any casino funding would not taint his longtime anti-gambling image. In 1999, Abramoff even sent himself an e-mail reminder about a vehicle for channeling money: "Call Ralph re: Grover doing pass through."
Two key tribal figures, William Worfel, a former vice chairman of the Louisiana Coushattas, and Nell Rogers, a legislative specialist with the Choctaws, were cited in the report. The citations indicate the importance that Abramoff and Reed placed on secrecy: Worfel told Senate investigators that the tribe's attorney stressed that payments to Reed "can't get out. He's Christian Coalition. It wouldn't look good if they're receiving money from a casino-owning tribe to oppose gambling."
After the report came out, Reed stressed in a statement that he had "not been accused of any wrongdoing." He said he was hired as a "subcontractor by a highly respected national law firm," and was assured he wouldn't be paid with gambling revenues.
On the campaign trail in Georgia, Reed has been bombarded with questions about his long-standing ties to the disgraced lobbyist. "It is now clear from the benefit of hindsight that this was a piece of business I should have declined," he said in his recent statement.
In 1998, not long after he left the Christian Coalition, Reed famously e-mailed Abramoff that he would like his help in getting clients. "Hey, now that I'm done with electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" Reed wrote. "I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts."
In August 2002, Reed joined Abramoff on the now-notorious golf trip to Scotland that included Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and David Safavian, the former chief procurement officer in the Bush administration who was convicted last month by a federal grand jury of lying to investigators and of obstructing justice in the Abramoff probe.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some e-mails and other details in this story are from Stone's forthcoming book, Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington, which will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.