As you may have read this week, the arrogant onetime Republican House whip Tom (The Hammer) DeLay is facing anywhere from probation to life in prison for his political money-laundering conviction. It's a historic case that reverberates from Texas to D.C. to Seattle. DeLay's conniving bud Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist for one of Seattle's most prestigious law firms, Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates) and subject of the new Kevin Spacey movie, Casino Jack, just wound up three and a half years of a six-year federal prison sentence. Biding his time in a Baltimore halfway house awaiting his release on parole next Saturday, Abramoff will be getting out just as co-conspirator DeLay might be headed in.
Abramoff was hired as a lobbyist in 1994 by Preston Gates' D.C. office, Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, where 60 of the firm's 400 attorneys then worked. As SW reported in 2005, their job was to troll the power corridors in search of friendly legislation for such clients as Microsoft and the Port of Seattle, as well as an assortment of Indian tribes. The mid-1990s was the era of the Gingrich Revolution in Congress and the Contract With America, which subsequently crashed and burned. Abramoff's "relationship with Tom DeLay helped put him on the fast track," reported the monthly Texas Observer. "In 1994 Abramoff got behind DeLay's whip race. When DeLay won ... Abramoff was a made man."
The FBI, a federal grand jury, and Senate probers eventually began investigating lobbying fees and influence peddling that linked DeLay, Abramoff, and Mike Scanlon, another Preston Gates lobbyist who had also been an aide to DeLay. With Scanlon's help, Abramoff developed his super-lobbyist reputation and, during their time at Preston Gates, first made contact with some of the Indian tribes who they began to make empty, expensive promises.
Investigators found e-mails in which Abramoff referred to some of his clients as morons and idiots. He also worried about his cover being blown on covert deals in which he urged tribes to hire Scanlon, without revealing that he, Abramoff, was sharing in Scanlon's enormous fees. As we reported:
Abramoff cultivated sweatshop and casino clients for his Seattle firm, bringing in millions in fees over the next seven years and pushing Preston to near the top of the D.C. power-lobby list. He and associate Scanlon (who later helped DeLay clandestinely operate a war room to impeach Bill Clinton) used DeLay's connections to defend and promote $3-an-hour sweatshop operations in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate.
DeLay himself visited the Marianas, played golf, toured the sweatshops, and dubbed it all "a perfect petri dish of capitalism." In 2001, the Marianas' public auditor determined that the island state had doled out $9.5 million in lobbying fees over eight years, and "about $6.7 million was paid to one lobbyist, Preston Gates." Most of $3.1 million of that amount was paid to Preston "without a valid contract," the auditor added. Preston also picked up some of DeLay's costs under questionable circumstances.
Abramoff later moved to Greenberg Traurig, another law and lobbying firm whose fortunes soared as a result. Abramoff expanded his operations and zeroed in on Indian casinos. Investigators say he racked up as much as $34 million from just one tribe, the Coushatta of Louisiana, offering political muscle and connections but not necessarily results. The systemic overcharging and money diversion was also his ticket to prison. In 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to three criminal felony counts for defrauding the tribes and public officials.
Indirectly, Abramoff implicated DeLay as an unindicted co-conspirator. DeLay, who once called Casino Jack "one of my closest and dearest friends," said if Abramoff or anyone else was "trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately." But by then, state and federal investigators began closing in on a backroom deal by DeLay to wash and divert campaign donations. The eventual conspiracy goal was to elect Texas candidates who would support redistricting the state in a matter that would create more Republican U.S. House seats.
Not unexpectedly, Delay is blaming the Democrats for his conviction. He told ABC News they'd been out to get him because he is a Republican, not because he was politically corrupt. He also told ABC he didn't regret his relationship with the disgraced Abramoff. They remain close friends and spoke just last month, shortly after Abramoff was released from federal prison and moved to the halfway house. Asked what the two discussed, DeLay said, "None of your business." But then, he's been saying that to the public for decades.