Can Justice Be Trusted?
Now that Jack Abramoff's dealings with members of Congress have drawn criminal indictments, the disgraced lobbyist's ties to the Bush Administration are starting to get attention. Reporters are peppering press secretary Scott McClellan with questions about "staff-level meetings" with Abramoff in the White House. Photographs of him with President Bush and other high-level officials are surfacing. Little notice has been paid, however, to the Justice Department, charged with prosecuting Abramoff. Evidence has emerged that the department played an active role in shutting down an investigation of Abramoff's dubious lobbying activities in Guam in November 2002. The story raises questions about whether Justice can be trusted with this historic investigation--and whether top White House officials actively abetted Abramoff's shady dealings as early as 2001.
The Guam story begins in February 2001, when there was legislation before Congress to create a Supreme Court on the island territory, to be above the existing Superior Court. Judges on that court, who wanted to retain the powers of the island's traditional highest court, asked Howard Hills, a lawyer from California, to hire Abramoff to fight the bill. Abramoff's success in blocking higher wage standards in the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI)--where workers are paid $3.05 an hour to make clothes bearing "Made in USA" insignia--had given him a reputation there as an influential lobbyist. Hills, Abramoff and Superior Court Judge Alberto Lamorean subsequently reached an agreement at Abramoff's Capitol Hill restaurant, Signatures. At the time Abramoff, a former member of George W. Bush's transition team, was a $750-an-hour lobbyist with access to the highest levels of the Republican Party.
Between February 2001 and July 2002, the Superior Court paid Abramoff $324,000 in lobbying fees, funneling the money in $9,000 increments through Hills to avoid disclosing that Abramoff was the beneficiary. The arrangement caught the eye of Frederick Black, the acting US Attorney on Guam since 1991. "He'd been there a long time," said Lee Radek, former head of Justice's Public Integrity Section, of Black. "I liked him. He had a good reputation." A retired district court judge appointed Black on a temporary basis, but lack of a replacement, his reputation for integrity and his high conviction rate kept him in the post.
At that time Black was leading a larger corruption investigation into Guam Governor Carl Gutierrez's office for diverting government funds for personal gain. To get Black off his back, Gutierrez hired Abramoff through a contract with the Guam International Airport Authority. "Abramoff claimed he had a top political guy at DOJ he could go to, to get rid of Black," says a source close to the investigation. The two met in DC in late 2001 or early 2002, around the time that Abramoff was employed by the Superior Court. Their strategy was to paint Black as a Clintonite, although he'd been named by the first President Bush and Gutierrez himself was a Democrat. "Gutierrez's role was to get Republicans to go to DOJ and the White House and say, Why have you not replaced that Democrat who's been acting US Attorney?" the source says. Before employing Abramoff, Gutierrez also retained Mark Touhey, a high-profile Washington lawyer who's cur rently defending Representative Bob Ney, repeatedly named in Abramoff's guilty plea for taking bribes from the lobbyist in return for official favors. Touhey reportedly met with Justice on at least one occasion to force Black's removal.
Sources confirm that in early November 2002 Black contacted the Public Integrity Section, the unit currently heading the department's Abramoff task force, and asked for assistance in investigating Abramoff's lobbying activities. Black didn't have the resources to conduct investigations of both Gutierrez and Abramoff, and wanted Washington to help on the Abramoff part. Senior officials working closely under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft were also notified of Black's request. Since Black's communication happened to raise serious questions about the integrity of a high-level federal official who was being renominated to his post, Justice forwarded the information to the Deputy Attorney General's office and the Office of Legal Policy (OLP), which generally handles such concerns.
Sources close to the probe say the information was likely passed on to then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who worked closely with Justice on such matters. "Those heads of OLP who are pretty well connected deal directly with the White House counsel," says Lee Casey, a former OLP aide under Reagan and Bush I. (Black declined to comment and Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra refused to provide details about an "ongoing criminal investigation.")