The head of a Republican environmental group clashed repeatedly Thursday with senators who accused her of having tried to improperly influence federal officials to advance the interests of tribes represented by controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Italia Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, told a skeptical Senate Indian Affairs Committee that she believed Abramoff’s tribal clients had donated $500,000 over three years to her organization because they were generous, not because they hoped she would help them thwart efforts by competing tribes to open casinos.
Federici has emerged as a key figure in the examination of the tactics Abramoff used to become one of Washington’s best-connected lobbyists -- tactics now under federal investigation.
Her testimony came as the committee is wrapping up a lengthy inquiry into Abramoff’s collection of $82 million in fees from tribal clients. The investigation has raised questions about whether Abramoff defrauded the tribes and improperly used his relationships with lawmakers and administration officials to lobby on behalf of his clients.
Abramoff, indicted this year in an unrelated case, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
The scandal surrounding Abramoff has touched powerful lawmakers, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose trip to a Scottish golfing resort in 2000 with the lobbyist has come under scrutiny. DeLay, who once described Abramoff as a close friend, has denied any wrongdoing and has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate his travels.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) pressed Federici to explain e-mails Abramoff sent to her in 2002, asking her to contact then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles. Abramoff wanted to enlist Griles in his effort to defeat applications from tribes seeking to open casinos that might hurt similar businesses run by Abramoff’s tribal clients.
“Any objective observer would see that there is a clear connection between contributions to your organization and work that you would have been doing on behalf of Mr. Abramoff with the Department of the Interior,” McCain told Federici.
She insisted there was no quid pro quo.
“I never asked Steve to put the kibosh on anything,” she said. “I was responding to Jack -- at the time, he was a friend -- in a way that I would respond to any friend who had a need or a question.”
Abramoff, in an e-mail exchange, portrayed a very different relationship. “Unfortunately, she is critical to me,” he responded in March 2003 to an associate who had asked, “Do we owe them or something?” The associate had posed the question because, he said, Federici expected Abramoff to pay for a reception her group was holding at a Washington restaurant the lobbyist owned.
Federici, in her testimony, said she had had “political” conversations with Griles and other Interior Department officials, passing on warnings to them from Abramoff that the casino permits they were considering were opposed by leading conservative activists and lawmakers. She said she had not known that Abramoff was funding the anti-casino campaign of conservative activist Ralph Reed and others.
In testimony to the committee this month, Griles insisted he had had no special relationship with Abramoff and had given him no special access. But another former senior official at the agency contradicted much of Griles’ testimony. Michael Rosetti, who had served as the department’s counsel, told the committee he had become alarmed by what he viewed as Griles’ strong interest in Indian tribal gaming issues.
Federici said she had been friends with Griles for at least a decade. She also helped establish her group with Gale A. Norton, secretary of the Interior since 2001. Upon joining the Cabinet, Norton handed control of the group to Federici.
McCain has said that his committee’s inquiry has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing by Norton.
Echoing other Abramoff associates who have testified before the committee, Federici insisted that she had been duped by the lobbyist.
“I had no reason in 2002 to believe that Mr. Abramoff was anything other than a truthful, friendly, charismatic, well-liked and well-respected Republican advocate in Washington,” Federici said. When she found out that Abramoff had funded the anti-casino campaign, Federici said, “I felt tremendously manipulated.”
McCain grew so angry with Federici’s interruptions of his questions -- and at what he said were her unresponsive answers -- that he twice threatened to find her in contempt of Congress. Federici appeared unshaken by the threats, or by McCain and Dorgan repeatedly saying they found her testimony hard to believe.
“I come from a really small town, but I think I can spot a pretty big lie from time to time,” Dorgan told her.
“I am not lying to this committee,” Federici said.
According to documents and testimony gathered by the panel, Abramoff used money collected from tribes to fund other organizations he established -- including a Jewish school for boys and a sniper training clinic in the Middle East -- that the tribes knew nothing about.
McCain has said he intends to issue a report on the committee’s findings early next year.