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The Late David Rosenbaum on Jack Abramoff

The late David Rosenbaum, the very well-regarded New York Times reporter who was murdered early this month near his home in Upper Northwest, wrote an excellent page A1 story about Jack Abramoff almost four years ago: back on April 3, 2002:

http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F50B17FD3B5E0C708CDDAD0894DA404482 "At $500 an Hour, Lobbyist's Influence Rises With G.O.P." By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM (NYT) 1807 words Published: April 3, 2002: WASHINGTON, April 2 - In the last six months of 2001, the Coushatta Indians, a tribe with 800 members and a large casino in southwest Louisiana, paid $1.76 million to the law firm of Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist here. Last month, the Bush administration handed the tribe a big victory by blocking construction of a casino by a rival tribe that would have drained off much of the Coushattas' business.

William Worfel, vice chairman of the Coushattas, views the administration's decision as a direct benefit of the eye-popping lobbying fees his tribe paid Mr. Abramoff, more money than many giant corporations like AOL Time Warner and American Airlines paid lobbyists in the same period. ''I call Jack Abramoff, and I get results,'' Mr. Worfel said. ''You get everything you pay for.'' In the seven years since Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, Mr. Abramoff, 43, has used his close ties to Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican whip, and other conservatives in the House to become one of the most influential -- and, at $500 an hour, best compensated -- lobbyists in Washington. He is also an important Republican fund-raiser.

Mr. Abramoff's recent success and importance in Republican circles is a reminder that even as much of official Washington has been focused on the war in Afghanistan, efforts to beef up national security after Sept. 11 and the crisis in the Middle East, the business of lobbying has been humming along quite nicely, more out of the spotlight than usual but more profitable than ever for those with the right connections. Unlike many lobbyists who take almost any client who is willing to pay their fee, Mr. Abramoff says he represents only those who stand for conservative principles. They include three Indian tribes with big casinos and, until recently, the Northern Mariana Islands.

''All of my political work,'' he said, ''is driven by philosophical interests, not by a desire to gain wealth.'' Mr. Abramoff argues that Indian reservations and the island territory, which is exempt from United States labor laws, are ''just what conservatives have always wanted, which is enterprise zones -- tax-free, regulation-free zones where with the right motivation, great industry could take place and spill out into the general communities.'' His success in making this case to Republicans in the House has paid off handsomely. At the beginning of last year, Mr. Abramoff left Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, the law firm where he had worked since he became a lobbyist in 1995, and joined the Washington office of Greenberg Traurig, a firm based in Miami. Mostly as a consequence, Greenberg Traurig, which received only $1.7 million in lobbying fees during the first half of 2000, had $8.7 million in the first half of 2001, fifth most of any firm in Washington, according to rankings by National Journal. Preston Gates, which had been ranked fifth, saw its lobbying fees cut in half and fell out of the magazine's top 10.

As is often true of the work of lobbyists, it is hard to tell how much influence Mr. Abramoff really has over government decisions, and his recent victory for the Coushattas is a case in point. Indian reservations are not covered by state laws regulating gambling. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department has the final say on whether casinos can be built on reservations, and the decisions have not always been free from political influence. Mr. Abramoff did not even directly approach the Interior Department himself, but instead organized a group of lawmakers and other Indian tribes with gambling interests to express to the department their opposition to the new casino.

For lobbyists, perception of influence can often be as valuable as actual influence. Mr. Worfel, the vice chairman of the Coushattas, said he was delighted with Mr. Abramoff's representation and happy to pay his firm's retainer of nearly $300,000 a month. Mr. Abramoff's fee of $500 an hour is matched by few if any other lobbyists in Washington.

Mr. Abramoff's background and personality hardly fit the mold of the typical Washington lobbyist. He is an Orthodox Jew who says that even more than politics, his religion is a central element of his life. He is a teetotaler with a soft voice and a gentle manner who once held a high school weight-lifting record in California. He spent several years in Hollywood producing movies -- ''Red Scorpion,'' an anticommunist thriller, was the most successful -- before becoming a lobbyist.

Most unusual, he is, by his own description, a committed ideologue. In the early 1980's, Mr. Abramoff was chairman of the College Republican National Committee, where he made important contacts. Among those on his staff were Grover Norquist, now a leading conservative strategist here and president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition, who is a prominent Republican political consultant. Mr. Abramoff tries hard to persuade his fellow Washington lobbyists to give more generously to the Republican Party, its candidates and conservative organizations. He expects to raise as much as $5 million this year, he said, and plans to donate as much as $250,000 personally.

Mr. Abramoff's rising influence is also illustrative of another trend in lobbying: success can be built on a strong relationship between a lobbyist and a single, powerful lawmaker. His interest in raising money for Republicans and conservative causes is the foundation of Mr. Abramoff's relationship with Mr. DeLay, who is determined to meld the lobbyists on K Street here into the Republican Party's political, legislative and fund-raising operations. Mr. Abramoff described the bond this way: ''We are the same politically and philosophically. Tom's goal is specific -- to keep Republicans in power and advance the conservative movement. I have Tom's goal precisely.'' Mr. Norquist, who is friendly with both men, said of Mr. Abramoff, ''He walks in to see DeLay and DeLay knows that he is representing clients whose views are in sync with DeLay's views.''

It is difficult to gauge the importance of this relationship to Mr. Abramoff's success. Some of his clients said in interviews that Mr. Abramoff did not mention the relationship when he was seeking their business and that it was not the reason they retained him. ''Everybody is important in Congress, not just DeLay,'' said Philip Martin, chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The tribe, which runs a large casino and resort, was one of Mr. Abramoff's first clients and is still one of the most lucrative. The Mississippi Choctaws paid Greenberg Traurig more than $1 million in the last half of 2001. ''Definitely we get our money's worth, or we wouldn't be doing it,'' Mr. Martin said.

Mr. DeLay did help put Mr. Abramoff on the lobbying map, assisting his clients on two sensitive matters in 1995, the first year Mr. DeLay was whip and Mr. Abramoff's first year as a lobbyist. But it is not clear that the whip was any more active on these measures than he was on other bills before the House that year. One of Mr. Abramoff's issues was his opposition to a federal tax on Indian gambling revenues. The tax was included in the nonbinding budget resolution the House approved. But on behalf of the Mississippi Choctaws, Mr. Abramoff said he went to Mr. DeLay and other Republican leaders and explained, ''Regardless of what you feel about gaming, what you are creating here is a tax on these people, and conservatives should never be in favor of new taxes.'' The proposed tax was killed, Mr. Abramoff said, ''once they discerned a conservative principle.''

The other big issue for Mr. Abramoff in 1995 that promoted his career was a bill passed by the Senate that would have stripped the Northern Mariana Islands of their exemption from the United States minimum wage and immigration laws. The main industry in the Marianas is textiles. Inexpensive clothes are made there, mostly by immigrant Chinese women who work for low wages in substandard conditions, and the garments are shipped duty-free to the United States with a ''Made in the U.S.A.'' label. With Mr. DeLay's help, Mr. Abramoff managed to get the legislation defeated in the House, using the argument that the Marianas represented low taxes and free enterprise and should be left alone.

Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the House, is still furious about Mr. Abramoff's action. In a recent interview, Mr. Miller said, ''He spent a lot of time, effort and money to protect a system that was a growth industry for sex shops, prostitution, abuse of women, slavery, illegal immigration, worker exploitation and narcotics, and he did it all in the name of freedom.'' Asked about this, Mr. Abramoff replied: ''Congressman Miller has an agenda, and he wants the facts to fit his thesis. No lobbyist could have convinced Congress to support the system he describes.'' After the bill was defeated, Mr. Abramoff took 150 lawmakers and staff members to the Northern Marianas, 200 miles north of Guam, and Mr. DeLay came back enthralled.

Unfortunately for Mr. Abramoff, turning the islands' economy into an ideological cause has come back to haunt him. In last November's election for governor, he supported the candidate of the garment industry, Benigno Fitial, against the Republican candidate, Juan Babauta. Mr. Babauta won and soon after he took office in January, he canceled the government's $100,000 per month contract with Mr. Abramoff. ''The U.S. territories have traditionally been handled in Washington in a bipartisan manner,'' an associate of the new governor said. ''Abramoff marked an end to that approach. So in a change of government, it was only natural that he be dropped.''

Photo: Jack Abramoff, one of Washington's highest-paid lobbyists. (Susana Raab for The New York Times)(pg. A17)

Chart: ''IN BRIEF: A Lobbyist's Clientele''

Some of the main clients of Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist, in the last six months of 2001, and the fees each paid to his law firm, Greenberg Traurig:

Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana: $60,000
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: United States territory exempt from wage and immigration laws: $600,000
Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana: $1,760,000
Hopi Tribe: $60,000
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians: $1,040,000
Primedia Inc.: Corporate parent of Channel One: $440,000
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe: $150,000
Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association: Textile trade association in Northern Mariana Islands: $160,000
Voor Huisen Project Management: Secondary mortgage project in Russia: $300,000

(Source: Senate Office of Public Records)(pg. A17)

I can find no journalist via Google News or Nexis who has referred to Rosenbaum's--excellent, early--story about the Abramoff scandal-to-be.