By E.J. Kessler

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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Embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is fighting back against his congressional critics, accusing them of “improper conduct” and demanding an ethics investigation into their activities.

Abramoff, a top fund-raiser for President Bush’s reelection campaign and one of the capital’s leading Orthodox philanthropists, is being investigated by his former law firm regarding what congressional probers are characterizing as exorbitant fees for advice the lobbyist gave to Indian tribes involved in casino gambling. The matter is also set to be the topic of hearings held by the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, instigated by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is a senior member.

Now the lobbyist is firing back at his detractors.

On March 31, Abramoff’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke, fired off one letter to McCain and another to Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, and Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. In the letters, copies of which were obtained by the Forward, Lowell voiced outrage that congressional investigators had leaked a letter detailing their demands for information on Abramoff’s activities to The Washington Post before Abramoff or Lowell “even knew about it.”

In the letter to Voinovich and Reid, Lowell demanded an ethics committee investigation into the leak, which he described as “improper conduct,” and argued that “even in this city where leaks are so prevalent, this breach of process has to set some new record where someone so close to the investigation in the Senate thought it made sense to go to the press before the recipient or his counsel even knew any information was being sought.”

Abramoff’s lawyer also complained in his letter to McCain, writing: “[S]omeone you work with proved without any doubt that this is not a serious endeavor seeking to find facts but just the same old Washington game of ‘gotcha.’”

While Abramoff has come under scrutiny, no one is alleging that the lobbyist did anything illegal.

Abramoff was the subject of a front-page exposé in the Post’s March 30 edition, based on the investigators’ letter, which alleged that a congressional probe had found that the lobbyist had “received $10 million in previously undisclosed payments from a public relations executive whom he recommended for work with wealthy Indian tribes that operate casinos.”

Abramoff and the executive — Michael Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — were paid “fees of more than $45 million over the past three years,” an amount that “rivals spending on public policy by some of the nation’s biggest corporate interests,” the newspaper reported. According to another story in the National Journal, “the FBI reportedly has been interviewing tribal members in Michigan and Louisiana about possible spending irregularities involving the work done by Abramoff and Scanlon.”

McCain, who called those fees “disgraceful,” told the Post in an earlier story about Abramoff’s activities, “If that amount of money was spent on lobbying and tribal members are living below subsistence levels, including in my state, this is not appropriate.”

The senator’s spokeswoman Andrea Jones did not return calls seeking comment on the matter. Rob Walker, the chief council and staff director of the Senate ethics committee, had no comment.

Abramoff, a high-profile figure in the Capital and in the Orthodox Jewish community, has contributed much money to Jewish institutions in the greater Washington area. Known as something of an independent actor, he founded a yeshiva, Eshkol Academy, when he didn’t like the direction taken by his children’s day school, of which he was president. He also established three restaurants that he touted as the place for Jewish power meetings: Stacks, the only kosher deli in the District of Columbia; the Archives, an upscale kosher supper place that folded, and Signatures, a nonkosher venue.

A friend of Abramoff, retired lawyer Jay Kaplan, said Abramoff’s fees were not high considering that he had saved the tribes “a billon dollars,” and called the hearings “a convenient vehicle for [McCain] to attack a couple of very high-ranking political opponents who are close to Abramoff.”

Abramoff’s rabbi, Jonah Gewirtz, said the “connections [Abramoff] had in Washington have been helpful for things of a Jewish nature.”

A friend of such Christian right figures as Ralph Reed, Abramoff is a board member of Toward Tradition, a conservative, Seattle-based coalition of Jews and Christians. In an earlier interview with the Forward, Abramoff said: “The Jewish community is finally starting to understand that a party that is informed on Israel by its religious Christian members, who are not willing to waver from their support of Israel — notwithstanding whatever latest peace fad might be going on — is one that would have Israel’s interest better in mind.”

Republicans gave solid, if tepid, support for Abramoff, a major bundler of Native American money for their party who long has styled himself as an ambassador of Republicanism among Jews.

The Bush re-election team appears to be standing by Abramoff, indicating that it has no plans to return Abramoff’s $2,000 contribution to the president, the maximum allowed by federal law. A so-called Bush Pioneer, Abramoff has raised more than $100,000 for the campaign, placing him in its elite fund-raising ranks.

Asked if it would be returning Abramoff’s contribution because of his troubles with McCain’s committee, the Bush campaign indicated that it had not taken any action in response to Abramoff’s situation. A Bush campaign spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail, “The President believes in full disclosure and our Finance Department takes aggressive measures to make sure that all contributions to the campaign are legal and appropriate. In the past, if and when we have discovered problems, we have returned those contributions. That continues to be our standard operating procedure.”

Abramoff’s former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, for which he was a top rainmaker, also is investigating Abramoff for what it called in a statement “personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable to the firm.” In a statement published in The Hill newspaper, Abramoff countered: “It is regrettable that Greenberg Traurig would indicate that my resignation was based on anything other than our mutual decision to ensure that recent events did not interfere with the representation of our clients.”

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