Video: Abramoff's Access

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updated 1/19/2006 9:59:01 PM ET 2006-01-20T02:59:01

Until recently, members of Congress couldn't resist accepting money and gifts from super lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Now that Abramoff has pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy, lawmakers are trying to pass lobbying reform as quickly as possible.  But as they scramble to convince voters they care about the smell coming from Abramoff and his associates, the scandal continues.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reported about the recent events leading up to the White House's admission about Abramoff's access to staff meetings.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  Two weeks ago, the White House acknowledged that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have met President Bush a few years ago during holiday parties.  Today the president's press secretary added that Abramoff also attended White House staff meetings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  With regard to Abramoff, can you give any more specificity on those meetings, when they were, years, time?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  No, this is sticking with our past policy.  We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition. 

SHUSTER:  This was the second straight day McClellan refused to provide details about Abramoff.  On Tuesday...

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Was it senior staff he met with?  Would you qualify it as senior staff that he met with here? 

MCCLELLAN:  Staff level meetings is a way I would describe it.  I mean, if you have anything specific, I'll be glad to take a look into it.  Well, if there's any reason for me to check into it, please bring it to my attention. 

GREGORY:  He pled guilty to some serious charges.

MCCLELLAN:  And so are you insinuating something? 

GREGORY:  I'm just trying out the facts.

MCCLELLAN:  Well if you've got something to bring to my attention, do so and I'll be glad to look into it.

GREGORY:  That's not a fair burden to place on us.  I mean, this guy is radioactive in Washington and he knows guys like Karl Rove.  So did he meet with him or not?  Don't put it on us to bring something specific.

SHUSTER:  One adviser outside the White House to President Bush and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.  Norquist and Jack Abramoff are friends from their days as college Republicans. 

MSNBC has confirmed that Norquist helped Abramoff bring at least two tribal chief clients into the White House to meet President Bush four years ago.  On April 19, 2001, an e-mail from Grover Norquist to Jack Abramoff was forwarded to the Coushatta's Indian tribe. 

The e-mail invited the tribe to attend a luncheon dinner at the White House and described the May 9, 2001 get-together as a meeting with, quote, “the president and congressional leadership.”  Norquist has denied this $25,000 check the tribes gave him was his fee for the White House visit. 

Still, the connections between the White House, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Washington influence-peddlers have been issues the Democratic group moveon.org has been trying to draw attention to for months.  And today, group protesters took to the sidewalk outside where Norquist's lobbyists and part of the Republican Party's brain trust conduct a regular weekly meeting.

One senator who often attends the meetings is Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum.  Last month when “The Washington Post” reported that Santorum met with the lobbying firms and associations “to discuss Republican candidates for job openings,” Santorum told the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” it was part of his leadership role as the Senate's third-ranking Republican.

“The K Street project is purely to make sure we have qualified applications for positions that are in town.  From my perspective, it's a good government thing.”

Yesterday Santorum joined John McCain in introducing lobbying reform and spun hard.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  I'm not aware of any Senate liaison job that I do for the K Street project.  What I have done is, I do host meetings once or twice a month with members who represent a variety of different groups in Washington D.C.

SHUSTER:  And so today they rolled out a lobbying reform plan named after Republicans, including Norquist and Abramoff.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER:  These people with the bad ideas, the K Street project and others, have infiltrated our government.

SHUSTER:  And the White House is now the latest part of the government to get snared by this story.  With Bush administration officials refusing to provide any details about Jack Abramoff's access to White House staff meetings, the stench, critics argue, is getting worse.

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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