Lobbyist Sought $9 Million to Set Bush Meeting
By PHILIP SHENON, The New York Times
President Bush met with Gabonese President Omar Bongo in 2004, but there is no evidence lobbyist Jack Abramoff was behind the meeting.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 - The lobbyist Jack Abramoff asked for $9 million in 2003 from the president of a West African nation to arrange a meeting with President Bush and directed his fees to a Maryland company now under federal scrutiny, according to newly disclosed documents.
The African leader, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, met with President Bush in the Oval Office on May 26, 2004, 10 months after Mr. Abramoff made the offer. There has been no evidence in the public record that Mr. Abramoff had any role in organizing the meeting or that he received any money or had a signed contract with Gabon.
White House and State Department officials described Mr. Bush's meeting with President Bongo, whose government is regularly accused by the United States of human rights abuses, as routine. The officials said they knew of no involvement by Mr. Abramoff in the arrangements. Officials at Gabon's embassy in Washington did not respond to written questions.
"This went through normal staffing channels," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, who said the meeting was "part of the president's outreach to the continent of Africa."
A document from Mr. Abramoff's files that was released last week by a Senate committee shows that in the summer of 2003 he pushed to sign President Bongo as a client, even offering to travel to Gabon immediately after an August golfing vacation to Scotland "with the congressmen and senators I take there each year."
The documents also show that Mr. Abramoff and his colleagues drew up a draft contract that called for $9 million in fees to be paid to GrassRoots Interactive, the small Maryland lobbying company that his former colleagues say he controlled.
Documents, including copies of canceled checks, show that millions of dollars flowed through the company's accounts in 2003, the year it was created, including at least $2.3 million to a California consulting firm that used the same address as the law office of Mr. Abramoff's brother, Robert. A separate check for $400,000 was made out to Kay Gold, another Abramoff family company.
Mr. Abramoff, a Republican fund-raiser who once was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, has been indicted in Florida on federal fraud charges. He is also under investigation by a federal grand jury in Washington and two Senate committees.
The grand jury inquiry initially centered on accusations that Mr. Abramoff had defrauded a group of Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees connected to their gambling operations, including steep fees for work that was never performed.
But federal law enforcement officials say that inquiry has broadened, with prosecutors examining other issues, including Mr. Abramoff's relationship with GrassRoots and other small consulting firms and charities he controlled. Congressional investigators have questioned whether he used them to hide income to avoid paying taxes and to evade disclosure rules for lobbyists. Federal law requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register with the Justice Department.
A spokesman for Mr. Abramoff had no comment on GrassRoots or the lobbyist's contacts with President Bongo. Robert Abramoff did not return repeated phone calls. GrassRoots has no listed telephone number in Silver Spring, Md., where it had been based.
In a draft agreement with Gabon dated Aug. 7, 2003, Mr. Abramoff and his associates asked that $9 million in lobbying fees be paid through wire transfers - three of them, each for $3 million - to GrassRoots instead of the Washington offices of Greenberg Traurig, the large lobbying firm where he did most of his work. The agreement promised a "public relations effort related to promoting Gabon and securing a visit for President Bongo with the president of the United States."
In seeking meetings at the White House or on Capitol Hill, foreign leaders, especially those from small nations, regularly turn to Washington lobbyists, especially those who claim connections to the government because of political or family ties.
Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter's brother, was a registered agent for Libya during his brother's presidency. During the Clinton administration, Anthony Rodham, whose sister, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, was the first lady, acknowledged that he had been offered a six-figure payment by supporters of the president of Paraguay to arrange a meeting with President Bill Clinton.
GrassRoots Interactive came under scrutiny on Capitol Hill in recent months when the Senate Judiciary Committee considered President Bush's nomination of a senior lawyer at Tyco International, a former lobbying client of Mr. Abramoff, as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department.
The lawyer, Timothy E. Flanigan, told the committee that at Mr. Abramoff's suggestion he had directed $2 million to GrassRoots from Tyco for lobbying on the company's behalf.
Instead, Mr. Flanigan said he learned last year that Mr. Abramoff had directed the money to "entities" that the lobbyist controlled and that Tyco was the victim of a "major fraud." After weeks of controversy over his ties to Mr. Abramoff, Mr. Flanigan withdrew his nomination as deputy attorney general last month.
Mr. Abramoff's ties to Gabon were first revealed in a letter that was among hundreds of pages of documents from Mr. Abramoff's files that were released last week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has conducted a yearlong investigation of his lobbying for Indian tribes.
When he first approached Gabon, Mr. Abramoff was not new to issues involving West Africa.
He had been a Washington lobbyist for President Mobutu Sese Seko, the repressive leader of neighboring Congo, called Zaire at the time. He also had connections to Gabon through a former business partner, David Safavian, who was a registered agent in Washington for President Bongo. Mr. Safavian, a former White House budget official, was arrested in September on charges of lying about his ties to Mr. Abramoff.
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The three-page letter released by the Senate panel was written to Mr. Bongo on Greenberg Traurig stationery and dated July 28, 2003; Mr. Abramoff suggested that he had unusual influence to arrange a meeting with President Bush.
"Without advance resources, I have been cautiously working to obtain a visit for the president to Washington to see President Bush," Mr. Abramoff wrote. "As you know, we were, in advance of the war in Iraq, able to secure a tentative date for this meeting; however, the war canceled all such scheduled visits."
Mr. Abramoff said he was willing to travel to Gabon to meet with Mr. Bongo to discuss the contract if the government would arrange for a private plane.
"It must be on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft, which bears a substantial cost unfortunately," he said. "I am confident that we will have a long, productive and warm relationship, but good relationships are built on firm understandings at the outset."
Other documents obtained by The New York Times show that Mr. Abramoff and his colleagues prepared two draft agreements, both dated Aug. 7, 2003, that outlined the lobbying plan for Gabon.
One called for GrassRoots to receive $9 million in lobbying fees; the other called for Greenberg Traurig to receive $1 million, all of it in 2003.
A spokeswoman for Greenberg Traurig said the firm had no comment. "We don't comment on whom we do or don't represent," said Jill Perry, a spokeswoman for the firm, which forced Mr. Abramoff to resign last year.
Maryland state records show that GrassRoots were established in 2003 by Edward B. Miller, a Republican lawyer who is now deputy chief of staff to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland. Samuel Hook, a former partner of Mr. Abramoff from Greenberg Traurig, took over it in September 2003.
Mr. Ehrlich's office has said that Mr. Miller is cooperating in the Justice Department investigation. Aron Raskas, a lawyer speaking for Mr. Miller, said Mr. Miller had no knowledge of any project involving Gabon.
Mr. Hook's lawyer, Alyza D. Lewin, said that "Mr. Abramoff solely controlled G.R.I.," a reference to GrassRoots Interactive.