Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid wrote at least four letters helpful to Indian tribes represented by Jack Abramoff, and the senator’s staff regularly had contact with the disgraced lobbyist’s team about legislation affecting other clients.
The activities — detailed in billing records and correspondence obtained by The Associated Press — are far more extensive than previously disclosed. They occurred over three years as Reid collected nearly $68,000 in donations from Abramoff’s firm, lobbying partners and clients.
Reid’s office acknowledged Thursday having “routine contacts” with Abramoff’s lobbying partners and intervening on some government matters — such as blocking some tribal casinos — in ways Abramoff’s clients might have deemed helpful. But it said none of his actions were affected by donations or done for Abramoff.
“All the actions that Senator Reid took were consistent with his long-held beliefs, such as not letting tribal casinos expand beyond reservations, and were taken to defend the interests of Nevada constituents,” spokesman Jim Manley said.
Reid, D-Nev., has led the Democratic Party’s attacks portraying Abramoff’s lobbying and fund-raising as a Republican scandal.
But Abramoff’s records show his lobbying partners billed for nearly two dozen phone contacts or meetings with Reid’s office in 2001 alone.
Most were to discuss Democratic legislation that would have applied the U.S. minimum wage to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory and Abramoff client, but would have given the islands a temporary break on the wage rate, the billing records show.
Reid helped Abramoff clients
Reid also intervened on government matters at least five times in ways helpful to Abramoff’s tribal clients, once opposing legislation on the Senate floor and four times sending letters pressing the Bush administration on tribal issues. Reid collected donations around the time of each action.
Ethics rules require senators to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in collecting contributions around the times they take official acts benefiting donors.
Abramoff’s firm also hired one of Reid’s top legislative aides as a lobbyist. The aide later helped throw a fund-raiser for Reid at Abramoff’s firm that raised donations from several of his lobbying partners.
And Reid’s longtime chief of staff accepted a free trip to Malaysia arranged by a consulting firm connected to Abramoff that recently has gained attention in the influence-peddling investigation that has gripped the Capitol.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty in a fraud and bribery case and is now helping prosecutors investigate the conduct of lawmakers, congressional aides and administration officials his team used to lobby.
Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to comment on the Reid contacts.
Reid has assailed Republicans’ ties to Abramoff while refusing to return any of his own donations. He argues there’s no need to return the money.
Reid accepted nothing, spokesman says
“Senator Reid never met Jack Abramoff and never has taken contributions from him, and efforts to drag him into this are going to fail,” Reid spokesman Manley said. “Abramoff is a convicted felon and no one has suggested the other partners we might have dealt with have done anything impermissible.”
While Abramoff never directly donated to Reid, the lobbyist did instruct one tribe, the Coushattas, to send $5,000 to Reid’s tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund, in 2002. About the same time, Reid sent a letter to the Interior Department helpful to the tribe, records show.
Abramoff sent a list to the tribe entitled “Coushatta Requests” recommending donations to campaigns or groups for 50 lawmakers he claimed were helpful to the tribe. Alongside Reid’s name, Abramoff wrote, “5,000 (Searchlight Leadership Fund) Senate Majority Whip.”
Following a pattern seen with Abramoff and Republicans, Abramoff’s Democratic team members often delivered donations to Reid close to key events.
Reid himself, along with his Senate counsel Jim Ryan, met with Abramoff deputy Ronald Platt on June 5, 2001, “to discuss timing on minimum wage bill” that affected the Marianas, according to a bill that Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff’s firm, sent the Marianas.
Money from Abramoff's firm
Three weeks before the meeting, Greenberg Traurig’s political action committee donated $1,000 to Reid’s Senate re-election committee. Three weeks after the meeting, Platt himself donated $1,000 to Reid.
Manley said Reid’s official calendar doesn’t list a meeting on June 5, 2001, with Platt, but he also said he couldn’t say for sure the contact didn’t occur. Manley confirmed Platt had regular contacts with Reid’s office, calling them part of the “routine checking in” by lobbyists who work Capitol Hill.
As for the timing of donations, Manley said, “There is no connection. This is just a typical part of lawful fund-raising.”
The Marianas, U.S. territorial islands in the Pacific Ocean, were one of Abramoff’s highest-paying clients and were trying to keep their textile industry exempt from most U.S. laws on immigration, labor and pay, including the minimum wage. Many Democrats have long accused the islands of running garment sweatshops.
The islands in 2001 had their own minimum wage of $3.05 an hour, and were exempt from the U.S. minimum of $5.15.
Sides clashed over Marianas
Republicans were intent on protecting the Marianas’ exemption. Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, wanted the Marianas to be covered by the U.S. minimum and crafted a compromise.
In February 2001, Kennedy introduced a bill that would have raised the U.S. hourly minimum to $6.65 and would have covered the Marianas. The legislation, which eventually failed, would have given the islands an initial break by setting its minimum at just $3.55 — nearly $3 lower than any other territory or state — and then gradually increasing it.
Within a month, Platt began billing for routine contacts and meetings with Reid’s staff, starting with a March 26, 2001, contact with Reid chief of staff Susan McCue to “discuss timing and status of minimum wage legislation,” the billing records say.
In all, Platt and a fellow lobbyist reported 21 contacts in 2001 with Reid’s office, mostly with McCue and Ryan.
One of the Marianas contacts, listed for May 30, 2001, was with Edward Ayoob, Reid’s legislative counsel. Within a year, Ayoob had left Reid’s office to work for Abramoff’s firm, registering specifically to lobby for the islands as well as several tribes. Manley confirmed Ayoob had subsequent lobbying contacts with Reid’s office.
Manley cast doubt on some of the contacts recorded in the billing records, saying McCue was out of Washington for a couple of the dates. But he acknowledged the contacts could have occurred by cell phone.
Malaysia trip cleared by ethics committee
In January 2002, McCue took a free trip, valued at $7,000, to Malaysia with several other congressional aides. The trip, cleared by Senate ethics officials, was underwritten by the U.S. Malaysia Exchange Association, a group trying to foster better relations between the United States and Malaysia.
The trips were part of a broader lobbying strategy by Malaysia, which consulted with Abramoff and paid $300,000 to a company connected to him, according to documents released by Senate investigators. The arrangements included a trip by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his wife to Malaysia in October 2001.
While Abramoff worked behind the scenes, the Alexander Strategy Group run by two former DeLay aides, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy, publicly registered to lobby for the U.S. Malaysia Exchange Association.
Rudy, who was cited in Abramoff’s court case, had worked temporarily for Abramoff before joining Buckham at Alexander Strategy, and the three men were friendly. In January 2002, Alexander Strategy arranged two congressional trips to Malaysia underwritten by the association.
One trip took a delegation of Republican congressmen. A Democratic consultant hired by Alexander Strategy, former Clinton White House aide Joel Johnson, invited McCue and went on the second trip with congressional staffers.
Johnson said he invited McCue on behalf of Alexander Strategy and went on the trip with her but said he knew of no connections to Abramoff. “My interest was in getting Democrats to travel to the country and to learn more about Malaysia,” Johnson said.
Reid intervened on other matters.
On March 5, 2002, he sent a letter to the Interior Department pressing the agency to reject a proposed casino by the Jena band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana. Fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, also signed.
The Jena’s proposed casino would have rivaled one already in operation in Louisiana run by the Coushattas, and Abramoff was lobbying to block the Jena. The day after Reid’s letter, the Coushattas wrote a $5,000 check to Reid’s Searchlight group at Abramoff’s suggestion.
Reid claims donation was unrelated
Reid and Ensign recently wrote the Senate Ethics Committee to say their letter had nothing to do with Abramoff or the donation and instead reflected their interest in protecting Las Vegas’ gambling establishments.
“As senators for the state with the largest nontribal gaming industry in the nation, we have long opposed the growth of off-reservation tribal gaming throughout the United States,” Ensign and Reid wrote. Reid authored the law legalizing casinos on reservations, and has long argued it does not allow tribal gambling off reservations.
On Nov. 8, 2002, the Nevada Democrat signed a letter with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein urging Interior Secretary Gale Norton to reject a proposal by the Cuyapaipe Band of Mission Indians to convert land for a health clinic into a casino in southern California.
The casino would have competed with the Palm Springs gambling establishment run by the Agua Caliente, one of Abramoff’s tribes.
Two weeks later, Reid went to the Senate floor to oppose fellow Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s effort to win congressional approval for a Michigan casino for the Bay Mills Indians, which would have rivaled one already operating by the Saginaw Chippewa represented by Abramoff.
“The legislation is fundamentally flawed,” Reid argued, successfully leading the opposition to Stabenow’s proposal.
The next month, Reid joined six other Democratic senators in asking President Bush in mid-December 2002 to spend an additional $30 million for Indian school construction. Several Abramoff tribes, including the Saginaw and the Mississippi Choctaw, were seeking federal money for school building.
Six weeks after that letter, three Abramoff partners — including Platt and Ayoob — donated a total of $4,000 to Reid’s Senate re-election campaign. Later in 2003, the Agua Caliente contributed $13,500 to Reid’s political groups while the Saginaw chipped in $9,000.
Reid sent a fourth letter on April 30, 2003, joining Ensign a second time to urge Interior to reject the Jena casino.
Two months later, Abramoff’s firm threw a fundraiser for Reid at its Washington office that netted the Nevada senator several more donations from Greenberg Traurig lobbyists and their spouses. Ayoob was instrumental in staging the event, Reid’s office said.