The Magazine

Scandal Season

The long strange trip of David Safavian--from lobbyist to defendant.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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No one is sure exactly what services Abramoff and Scanlon performed in exchange for such high fees. The probable answer is as few as possible. Only a small portion of the money went to actual lobbying of congressmen, and that lobbying mostly was unsuccessful. Abramoff's main accomplishment seems to have been the construction of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine of self-dealing meant to line his pockets and those of a small group of friends. What has attracted the attention of the national media is that the individuals who make up this coterie are prominent figures in the capital's Republican establishment. The money-grubbing scheming uncovered so far has revealed that establishment to be all too similar to those that came before it.

You will recognize the names. One is former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, who turned to his old College Republicans pal Jack Abramoff for help when he founded his consulting firm, Century Strategies, in 1997. Abramoff paid Reed to foment "grassroots support" to shut down casinos that took business away from those paying Abramoff. Reed's work has become an issue in Georgia, where he is running for lieutenant governor. (See my "A Decade of Reed," June 27, 2005.) He has pledged to cooperate with the Senate. But his close associate, antitax activist Grover Norquist, has refused to disclose his group's tax returns. Norquist, whose own lobbying shop represented tribal clients in the late '90s, was the recipient of Abramoff's clients' largesse in the form of sizable donations to his group, Americans for Tax Reform. Meanwhile, because House rules forbid lobbyists from funding a congressman's travel, the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into whether Abramoff improperly paid for junkets that former majority leader Tom DeLay took to Scotland and elsewhere. (House rules also forced DeLay to step down last week as majority leader, a position he had held since 2003, after a Texas grand jury indicted him on unrelated campaign-finance conspiracy charges.) Representative Bob Ney is under scrutiny for several statements he entered into the congressional record seemingly at Abramoff's request, several trips he took with Abramoff, and an amendment he attached to a 2002 election reform bill that would have directly benefited one of Abramoff's gaming clients. Today Ney says he was "duped." And Senator Conrad Burns of Montana is under pressure to return the hundreds of thousands of dollars Abramoff and his clients donated to his campaign coffers over the years. He hasn't.

These men are famous, at least in Washington. But there are less-famous others ensnared in Abramoff's web. Congressional underlings often worked with Abramoff to secure favors and carve out loopholes for his clients. They watched Washington Wizards basketball games from the lobbyist's skybox at the MCI Center. They ate dinner at the lobbyist's chic downtown restaurant, Signatures. Some seem to have found the lifestyle so appealing, in fact, that they became lobbyists themselves.

Abramoff's partners and associates occupy positions throughout the executive branch. An ex-lobbyist on the Mariana Islands account--the archipelago, a U.S. territory that is exempt from this country's immigration and minimum wage laws, is a frequent target of labor and human rights groups--works as an assistant secretary at the department of labor. President Bush has nominated a former Abramoff client and ex-Tyco legal counsel to be deputy attorney general. Abramoff's executive assistant at Preston Gates and Greenberg Traurig went on to a similar job with presidential adviser Karl Rove. It's important to note, of course, that none of these individuals has been accused of doing anything illegal. But an Abramoff connection has suddenly become the fastest way to invite press scrutiny and Democratic criticism.

Both are now visited daily upon the White House. When Safavian was arrested, the inquiry into Abramoff shifted from Capitol Hill, where it spent much of the spring and early summer, to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where it will remain indefinitely. The administration must think its luck is washing away. Washington is flooded with scandal. A flawed federal disaster response, accusations of executive branch cronyism, an ongoing grand jury investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press two years ago, a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into the Senate majority leader's finances, the DeLay indictment, further investigations into the House leadership--all of these stories are rapidly draining the Republicans' vigor.