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Golf, and Playing by the Rules

Times Staff Writers

A group of congressional figures has joined House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) under an ethics cloud stemming from foreign golf junkets arranged by a lobbyist facing influence-peddling investigations.

DeLay landed in trouble last month over a 2000 trip to Scotland with the lobbyist. But two other congressmen and three House aides also played St. Andrews on separate junkets with the lobbyist that may have violated House rules, records show.

And, like the Texas Republican, all omitted disclosing the key role of beleaguered lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He privately raised tens of thousands of dollars for private jets and boasted of setting up golf junkets, according to documents, congressional testimony and interviews.

One of Abramoff’s golf guests was Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the little-known but powerful House Administration Committee. He said in congressional filings that his trip on a chartered jet in 2002 was sponsored and paid for by an obscure conservative think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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But the center’s president told the Los Angeles Times that it “did not sponsor, nor did we pay” for Ney’s travels.

The same nonprofit organization also was listed by then-freshman Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) after he flew to Scotland with the lobbyist in August 2003. But in response to inquiries by The Times, the center said it did not provide “a single dime” for the Feeney junket.

Members of Congress routinely travel as guests of educational and policy groups, but they cannot accept trips or gifts from lobbyists.

The think tank’s blunt contradictions of the congressmen’s reports raise questions about whether Ney and Feeney violated House rules and filed false documents to disguise gifts from a lobbyist.

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It is the latest twist in a mounting ethics scandal surrounding one of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists.

Ney and Feeney, through spokesmen, blamed others for any filing errors.

“It was the congressman’s understanding that this trip was permissible under House rules,” said Brian J. Walsh, communications director for Ney. He said it was “based on representations” by Abramoff that the National Center sponsored their travel.

Feeney’s chief of staff expressed surprise. “You are the first to inform me of the information being incorrect,” said Jason Roe.

He said any false information would be “the result of someone misleading” the congressman, “not any nefarious activity on his part.”

In a statement last week, the think tank said it paid for DeLay, his wife and others to visit London and meet with British political leaders. There was no mention of the golf excursions that were, according to documents and Senate testimony, arranged by Abramoff.

Abramoff, among the most powerful Republican lobbyists on Capitol Hill over the last decade, is the focus of inquiries by a federal grand jury and a U.S. Senate committee.

The criminal investigation appears to be a sweeping probe of Abramoff’s lobbying practice, based on interviews with witnesses and published accounts.

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The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is looking into allegations that Abramoff and a former DeLay aide bilked six Indian tribes out of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees.

Justice Department and Indian Affairs Committee officials declined to discuss their investigations.

Both DeLay and Ney have helped Abramoff and his clients.

At the time of his Scotland trip in 2002, for example, Ney was attempting to amend a bill to aid an Abramoff tribal client in Texas.

Ney came to Abramoff’s aid two years earlier on another case. He took to the House floor to castigate the owner of a Florida-based gambling cruise ship company that Abramoff was trying to purchase.

And before his 2000 golf trip, DeLay blocked legislation, strongly opposed by Abramoff’s clients, to end use of low-wage workers in Pacific island sweatshops.

Early details of Abramoff’s role in the golf junkets emerged during a Senate hearing in November.

A consultant to a Texas tribe represented by Abramoff testified that the lobbyist had told him he needed $100,000 to pay for Ney and his contingent’s golf trip to Scotland. Abramoff also told the consultant that he had arranged a similar golf trip for DeLay in 2000, according to the testimony.

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Abramoff paid $72,000 from a personal business account to charter a jet in advance of the Ney trip, records released by a Senate committee show.

Since the scandal broke last fall, Ney has distanced himself from Abramoff.

In a written statement Nov. 17, Ney expressed shock and disgust at the “duplicitous, immoral and possibly criminal behavior” of the lobbyist.

Feeney had not previously been tied to the Abramoff controversy.

He was first elected to Congress in 2002 after serving a decade in the Florida Legislature, the last two years as speaker of the state House of Representatives. He lost a bid for Florida lieutenant governor during Jeb Bush’s first failed campaign for governor.

Also facing possible ethics questions for the first time are three House staffers who accompanied the congressmen on the golf trips.

Like House members, staff aides are required to file reports on trips sponsored by outside parties and may not accept travel financed or arranged by lobbyists. They are responsible for knowing and accurately reporting who pays for their expenses, according to House rules.

Abramoff did not respond to questions for this article. A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, his attorney, issued a brief response. He said, “Mr. Abramoff can only hope that people will not rush to judgment based on negative and one-sided attacks.”

The Lobbyist

Jack Abramoff rode a Republican wave into Washington in 1994. Within weeks of midterm elections that gave the GOP control of the House, he left Hollywood, where in 1989 he had produced “Red Scorpion,” an action-thriller about anti-communist guerrillas, to become a Capitol Hill lobbyist.

He was politically conservative, a former president of the College Republican National Committee from 1981 to 1985, and had close ties to the new congressional leadership, including DeLay.

His clients included Pacific island territories and wealthy Indian tribes.

Trouble arose when some of his clients began to question the fees. Tribal leaders told Senate and federal investigators that Abramoff pressured them to pay millions of dollars in fees to former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon. Senate investigators discovered that the fees were secretly shared with Abramoff.

Both Abramoff, 46, and Scanlon, 34, took the 5th Amendment and refused to answer questions before the Senate last fall. One of their former tribal clients has since filed a lawsuit alleging civil fraud.

Controversy surrounding some of the lobbyist fees was first disclosed in a small newspaper in Louisiana, the Town Talk of Alexandria, in 2003. It drew national attention after reports last year in the Washington Post. A Senate investigation showed that the two lobbyists collected about $66 million in fees from the tribes, an amount senators called excessive during a series of hearings last fall. Abramoff received $21 million of that money, investigators said.

The fees were described as “exorbitant” by a member of the Senate panel, and did not include lucrative lobbying fees paid to Abramoff’s Washington law office, the Miami-based firm Greenberg Traurig.

Abramoff also pressed his clients to make what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called “substantial political and dubious charitable contributions.” McCain, now chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said those payments warranted additional investigation.

A November hearing focused on Scanlon and Abramoff splitting $4.2 million in fees to help the Tiguas, a Texas tribe hit hard when the state closed its casino near El Paso.

Senators accused Abramoff and Scanlon of working both sides of the case -- secretly helping Christian conservative Ralph Reed persuade Texas officials to close the Indian gambling center, then charging the Tigua tribe hefty fees to lobby for legislation to reopen it.

A spokeswoman said Reed worked against the casino because he was opposed to gambling. He had nothing to do with later efforts to reopen it, Sarah Few said.

Scanlon did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Ney

As chairman of the House Administration Committee, Ney was in a position to help the Tigua tribe.

Abramoff told tribal leaders that the congressman could attach language concerning their shuttered casino to an unrelated election reform bill. Ney was the bill’s author, and as committee chairman would be part of the House-Senate conference committee determining its final language.

Six days after Abramoff said Ney agreed, the lobbyist asked the tribe to send three checks to the congressman’s political committees. Checks totaling $32,000 were sent. Two months later, Abramoff asked the Tiguas to pay for half of Ney’s golf junket to Scotland. Another tribal client would pay the rest, he said.

Marc Schwartz, a governmental affairs consultant for the Tiguas, told the Senate he “received an e-mail from Abramoff” suggesting the tribe’s share would be $50,000. He asked them to send it by Federal Express.

The tribe did not want to pay. At Abramoff’s direction, they already had hired and paid Scanlon $4.2 million and made campaign contributions of $300,000 to Ney and others.

Instead, the Tiguas arranged for their share of junket expenses to come from the Alabama-Coushatta, the other Texas tribe that would benefit from special language proposed for the pending legislation, according to testimony and interviews.

Following Abramoff’s instructions, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, through its casino, made out a check for $50,000 payable to a foundation controlled by the lobbyist.

It was recorded as a charitable contribution to the Capital Athletic Foundation, according to tax records. Corporate records list Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, as the foundation’s sole directors.

In August 2002, Ney and his party flew in a chartered jet with Abramoff to St. Andrews’ fabled golf links.

Others making the trip included Scanlon; Reed; David Safavian, a General Services Administration official; and Ney’s chief of staff, William Heaton, according to records and testimony.

Heaton reported to the House that his trip had been sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Safavian and Reed said they paid their own way. Safavian, who has since been appointed chief of procurement at the Office of Management and Budget by President Bush, said he wrote a personal check to Abramoff.

Ney’s travel report naming the National Center as sponsor omitted any reference to golf. The purpose, Ney said, was to make a “speech to Scottish parliamentarians, attend Edinburgh Military Tattoo” and visit the British Parliament.

On his return, Ney met with tribal leaders in his congressional office, where he sang the praises of Abramoff, according to Senate testimony by Tigua officials. He pledged to help get their casino reopened, they said.

However, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), author of the Senate version of the election reform bill, refused to add special language to the bill.

The Tigua casino never reopened.

“My heart goes out to the Indian tribes ... who were duped,” Ney said in his November statement. He blamed the lobbyist.

“I too was misled,” he said, by Abramoff and Scanlon, whom he called “these two nefarious individuals.”

Ney said he was not “even remotely aware that any Indian tribe played any role” in his trip to Scotland.

The Think Tank

It was a direct and unambiguous denial.

“The National Center for Public Policy Research did not sponsor, nor did we pay for, a 2002 trip reportedly taken by Rep. Ney and others,” said Amy Ridenour, center president.

“We were not even aware that such a trip had taken place,” she wrote in response to a reporter’s questions.

The center describes itself as “a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems.”

Formed in 1982, it has annual revenue of more than $6 million. Ridenour leads the center, and her husband, David, is vice president. Tax returns for the organization show the couple were paid a combined $275,000 in 2003.

After the November elections, Ridenour wrote opinion pieces sent to newspapers nationwide that urged Bush to address Social Security reform and reduce government regulation.

The center has issued several reports on environmental issues and charges that environmentalists have engaged in “a jihad ... against corporate America.”

It gets most of its revenue through direct-mail solicitations, records show, and says it receives no public funding.

Abramoff was on its board of directors from 1995 to 2004, and some of his tribal clients were among its major backers.

The Choctaw tribe of Mississippi gave $1 million to the center, according to Senate testimony. The Louisiana Coushattas, according to a spokesman, were asked to donate more than $1 million but never made the payment.

Tax records show that the center, in turn, supports Abramoff. It paid an Abramoff-controlled company $1.2 million for consulting, and made separate donations of $450,000 and $250,000 to the athletic foundation established and controlled by the lobbyist and his wife.

Rep. Feeney

A year after the Ney trip, Abramoff was headed back to Scotland on a chartered jet with Feeney.

And like Ney, Feeney reported that the National Center was the sponsor of the August 2003 trip, picking up a tab of $5,643. In addition to playing golf “on two, possibly three occasions,” according to a Feeney aide, the congressman met with Scottish business and political leaders.

He also attended and reviewed the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual parade of kilted soldiers marching to bagpipes and drums at Edinburgh Castle. Feeney was invited, his aide said, because of his membership on the House Judiciary Committee’s domestic security subcommittee.

Feeney left the golf junket early to join his wife for a previously planned vacation in Ireland, an aide said.

Also on the trip with Feeney were Reed and two congressional aides -- Mark Zachares and Bob R. Brooks Jr.

Both aides listed the National Center as their trip sponsor, although the nonprofit agency also flatly disputed that. The aides filed their travel disclosure reports with the House clerk’s office hours after receiving e-mails from Abramoff’s Washington law office that advised them and Feeney what to report.

In those e-mails, Abramoff’s office listed the National Center as the sponsor and provided figures for the costs of transportation, lodging and meals. The aides used those figures on their filings to the clerk’s office, documents show.

Zachares, now a top staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, once served as a labor and immigration official in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Abramoff represented the territory and its apparel manufacturers at the time.

Brooks is chief of staff to Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who was then fighting attempts by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians to open a casino in his district.

The lobbyist also opposed the proposed gaming facility because it would have competed with a client’s casino.

Neither Brooks nor Zachares responded to questions from The Times.

‘The Hammer’

The National Center, in acknowledging its sponsorship of DeLay’s 2000 trip, made no mention of golfing in Scotland.

Its statement noted the trip involved “significant policy meetings” -- including a visit with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “We were then and remain honored that they chose to accept our invitation,” the statement reads., It calls the trip “consistent with our mission as an educational foundation.”

The trip for DeLay and his entourage cost about $70,000, records show.

DeLay, known as “the Hammer” when he became Republican whip a decade ago, also was a guest of the center in 1997 for a trip to Russia.

The National Journal reported in February that Abramoff sought reimbursement from his then-law firm for $13,318 in hotel bills incurred on the 2000 trip, including $4,285 for DeLay and his wife to stay at a London hotel.

Payment of DeLay’s hotel bill by lobbyist Abramoff would be prohibited by House ethics rules.

Abramoff bragged of setting up the Scottish golf trip for his friend DeLay, according to Senate testimony and e-mails.

In a June 7, 2002, e-mail to Tigua consultant Schwartz, Abramoff wrote of the upcoming Ney golf junket, saying it “will be quite expensive (We did this for another member -- you know who) two years ago.”

Abramoff identified “you know who” as Tom DeLay, Schwartz testified.

DeLay bristled when asked last week about the Britain trip, saying he reported it properly. He brushed aside questions about the lobbyist, saying that “Jack Abramoff is not the only person I talk to in Washington, D.C. I have a lot of relationships, hundreds of relationships.”

Records show their relationship has benefited Abramoff over the years.

In one case, DeLay helped stop a Republican proposal to tax Indian casino proceeds. Abramoff’s client at the time was among the leading opponents of that tax.

Since the golf trip, DeLay has continued to help Abramoff’s clients. In 2003, he joined the House speaker and other Republican leaders signing a letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. The group opposed a proposed casino in Louisiana that would have competed with another club run by one of Abramoff’s biggest clients.

Times researcher Mark Madden contributed to this report.


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