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
Relationships. In 1994, the historic Republican takeover of Congress refired Abramoff's passion for politics and, perhaps as important, created some significant new business opportunities. Many Washington lobbying firms were suddenly confronted with a troubling realization: They didn't know the new GOP players who had suddenly taken control, and they needed to find people who did. Abramoff not only knew most of the key Republicans in town, but he had worked with them in the trenches for nearly 15 years.
It was time to cash in. At Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, and later at Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff was one of the key players in a plan devised by DeLay and Norquist and called the K Street Project. For the GOP, it was payback time. Lobbying firms, long filled with Democrats who had cozy relationships with long-serving committee chairmen, were pressed to hire more Republicans. So hire they did. And Abramoff was the king of the hill. Among his blue-chip clients were Unisys, Tyco, and the government of the Northern Marianas Islands. A friend referred Abramoff to his first Indian client. The Mississippi Band of the Choctaw wanted a potentially onerous tax provision killed. Abramoff began working for them in 1995 and quickly derailed the offending legislation. Not long after, the Indian gaming business began to roll in. By 2002, the future seemed limitless. "We are missing the boat," Abramoff said in an E-mail to Scanlon. "There are a ton of potential opportunities out there. There are 27 tribes which make more than $100 [million] a year . . . . We need to get moving on them."
Before long, Abramoff was hauling in millions a year. Signatures, a high-end watering hole serving contemporary American cuisine on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, became the place to be for the GOP elite. With an elaborate plate of exotic seaweed salads and his specially mixed iced tea sweetened with Splenda, Abramoff held forth from a corner table. The bar-restaurant sometimes hosted dozens of fundraisers a week, and some lawmakers and staff felt free to run up enormous tabs without settling the bill. The New York Times reported that tribes were also billed for meetings Abramoff held at Signatures; the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, for instance, was billed more than $5,600 for Abramoff's meals with public officials and lobbyists in 2002, the paper said. Abramoff, through all the glitter and hurly-burly, cut a peculiar figure. Night after night, Signatures was jammed with the beautiful, the powerful, the backslappers, the cronies. From his corner table, Abramoff, deeply religious, strict observer of the Sabbath, father of five, drank it all in quietly. "I never once saw Jack check out a woman in that restaurant," recalls an employee, "and the place was packed with pretty women."
Much of Abramoff's good fortune, at least at the beginning, had to do with his perceived access to DeLay. Abramoff has long rejected any notion that he took advantage of the relationship, and his spokesman, Blum, says "numerous clients . . . have agreed that Mr. Abramoff did not trade on his relationship with Representative Delay." Abramoff acknowledged to intimates, however, that he admired DeLay and continues to do so to this day. People close to Abramoff say the friendship was based on a shared conservatism, a deep interest in the security of Israel, and a determination to promote conservative causes. The two men were fond of discussing the Bible. Both love golf and share a soft spot for Verdi opera. As DeLay rose in stature, from GOP conference secretary to majority whip to majority leader, so did those who were close to him, and Abramoff was regarded as the cream of that crop.