Snake Eyes for 'Casino Jack'
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was the toast of the town. Now he's persona non grata. It's a Washington story
In the winter of 2002, the Tiguas of West Texas, a small tribe of American Indians whose origins go back some 10,000 years, had come to a very modern understanding of money. After a history of grinding poverty, they suddenly found themselves rich. The money, nearly half a billion dollars of it, was generated by their 1,500-slot-machine, adobe-style Speaking Rock Casino on the outskirts of El Paso. But trouble was brewing. Texas-size trouble.
After a long court fight, Texas had won the right to shut down Speaking Rock, arguing that casino gambling was illegal in the state, even on nominally sovereign soil like that of an Indian reservation. The Tiguas needed help--fast.
Enter Jack Abramoff. A onetime producer of B movies, Abramoff was a superstar Washington lobbyist with lots of well-placed friends, Republican lawmakers who wielded the levers of power on Capitol Hill. His deep involvement in conservative-movement politics dating back to the Reagan years and his longstanding associations with many of the icons of the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s made Abramoff an unusually hot commodity in the nation's capital. "He had unbelievable access," says one Democratic lobbyist, bestowing the ultimate compliment among the city's well-heeled influence peddlers. "He got results."
Needed a meeting with a committee chairman? Some special language in a pending bill? Abramoff was your man. Which is precisely why the Tiguas reached out to him back in 2002, after Texas authorities shut the doors on Speaking Rock. As it happened, Abramoff had quite a stable of Indian gaming clients already, and as a result, "Casino Jack," as he was known to some around the Capitol, knew a thing or two about how the arcane world of Indian gambling worked. In the case of the Tiguas, the solution was relatively straightforward. The fix would be in the form of language inserted in a bill by a friendly congressman--language that would override the court decision that allowed the state of Texas to close the casino. Presto!--the Tiguas and Speaking Rock would be back in business. Better still, Abramoff promised, he would take on the Tiguas as a client initially at no charge. There was, of course, a catch. What the Tiguas didn't know at the time, investigators say, is that the man offering to help them reopen their casino had actually been an integral part of an earlier effort by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn to shut it down.
Specifically, Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, had sent $4 million to Abramoff's old friend Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, to run a grass-roots operation to generate support for Cornyn's effort to shut Speaking Rock. But never mind that; Abramoff and Scanlon were still able to get $4.2 million out of the Tiguas for an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to reopen Speaking Rock. In fact, the Tigua tribal council voted on the deal the very same day a local newspaper ran a story about 450 casino employees being laid off--an irony that wasn't lost on Abramoff. "Is life great or what!!!" he wrote Scanlon in an E-mail.