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.”)
Up to this point Abramoff had lobbied to replace Black because Governor Gutierrez had hired him to do so. Now he had a personal stake in Black’s investigation–he was a target of it. It’s not known whether Abramoff tried to stop Black’s investigation of him, but such interference would have been in character. Earlier in the year Abramoff had persuaded Justice to kill a risk-assessment report on Guam and the CNMI, which Black had ordered. The report might have jeopardized the influx of cheap labor to CNMI, where Abramoff had $1.6 million in lobbying contracts. In an e-mail dated October 1, 2001, Abramoff told CNMI officials he learned of the results of the security review from Ashcroft’s chief of staff, David Ayres, whom he hosted at a Washington Redskins game. Abramoff mentioned an upcoming meeting with Ashcroft and another meeting, at a pickup basketball game, between the Attorney General and an Ashcroft aide who’d become an Abramoff staffer. “We’ll hope that higher ups will take some time to squash this on their own,” Abramoff wrote. Sure enough, the report never came out and Justice demoted its author, regional security specialist Robert Meissner. Did Abramoff use the same Justice channels to quash Black’s inquiry?
Despite Justice’s refusal to help him, Black convened a grand jury, which subpoenaed the Abramoff contract with the Superior Court on November 18, 2002. The next day the Bush Administration announced that Black would be replaced as US Attorney and demoted him to Assistant US Attorney, after twelve years on the job. His replacement was Guam’s Assistant Attorney General, Leonardo Rapadas. “Fred was removed because he asked to indict Abramoff,” says one of Black’s colleagues at Justice. “I don’t believe it was a coincidence.”
Rapadas’s conduit to the White House, veteran Washington lobbyist Fred Radewagen, “had access all the way up to Karl Rove,” says David Sablan, former head of the Guam Republican Party. At the time of Black’s demotion, former Abramoff aide Susan Ralston was working as a top assistant to Rove, a post she still holds.
Before Rapadas’s confirmation, in May 2003, law-enforcement officials in Guam had supplied extensive information to Ashcroft and senior Justice officials indicating that he would have to recuse himself from the Gutierrez investigation because he was related to two people implicated in the scandal. Also in May, Guam’s new Governor, Felix Camacho, a former Black ally, met with Abramoff in Washington. That same month, Jus tice dispatched Assistant US Attorney Russ Stoddard to Guam. Stoddard proceeded to bar Black from working on any public corruption cases and demanded that all new cases be approved through him, rather than the criminal division–a highly unorthodox procedure. Black’s investigation into Abramoff’s activities was forceably halted. Reportedly, the FBI and the DOJ Inspector General have begun looking into Black’s demotion. Sources close to the IG investigation say its findings will be released soon. But the way Justice silenced Black and Meissner in part prompted Senators Chuck Schumer and Ken Salazar to call for the appointment of a special counsel to handle the Abramoff investigation. The circumstances of Black’s removal raise several questions. Did the White House interfere to stop Black’s investigation? Was Gonzales involved? Was Ashcroft?
More broadly, how can Justice be trusted to investigate a matter in which it is so deeply implicated? Despite the Public Integrity Section’s reputation for impartiality, there are few institutional checks to prevent further political meddling into its current investigation of Abramoff. On January 25 Bush nominated the current Public Integrity Section head, Noel Hillman, to a federal judgeship in New Jersey and named a temporary replacement mid-investigation. Justice can prosecute the case without any political pressure “as long as the targets are members of Congress,” says former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. “If, however, you start to develop ties between Congress, Abramoff and people in the White House, it becomes problematic, especially from an appearance perspective. Because of the Deputy Attorney Gen eral’s and the Attorney General’s ties to the President, the need for an outside counsel becomes greater.”
Otherwise, how can the public be sure that the President’s man, Alberto Gonzales, will conduct an honest, thorough investigation of Abramoff when the targets might include his top deputies, his former White House colleagues, his predecessor, his boss–indeed, himself?