Two eyewitnesses say that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff proposed to sell his services to the much-criticized government of Sudan to help improve its abysmal reputation in the United States, especially among Christian evangelicals who were campaigning against human rights violations in the troubled African nation.
Khidir Haroun Ahmed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview that Abramoff proposed a multimillion-dollar lobbying contract in late 2001 but that the proposal was "never seriously considered" by the Sudanese. He declined to elaborate.
The story Ahmed and a former Abramoff associate tell about the solicitation of Sudan, which the U.S. had sanctioned for its record on terrorism and rights violations, is a striking example of the kind of aggressive machinations of Abramoff as spelled out in the criminal cases against him. The super-lobbyist made tens of millions of dollars representing -- and sometimes defrauding -- corporations, foreign clients and American Indian gambling interests.
A spokesman for Abramoff, Andrew Blum, confirmed that a conversation took place between Abramoff and the ambassador but said Abramoff never sought a contract and rejected working for the Sudanese because of that country's human rights record.
The ambassador and the former associate of Abramoff dispute Blum's account. The former associate said the ex-lobbyist discussed the possible contract while sitting with the ambassador in Abramoff's skybox at Washington's Fed-Ex field during a Redskin football game in late 2001.
The former associate, who did not want to be named out of fear it might damage future business opportunities, said that Abramoff proposed a $16- to $18-million contract -- "a staggering sum" for the destitute nation -- but one that the lobbyist considered reasonable because international disapproval was so costly to Sudan's economy.
For more than two decades, a civil war divided Sudan's Arab-Muslim government in the north and the mainly Christian and animist south.
Abramoff offers a different account of events. Blum, his spokesman said the lobbyist did not suggest any sums to the Sudanese but rather "objected in explicit terms to Sudan's treatment of Christians." He said Abramoff remembered the encounter "because he felt it was deeply embarrassing to the ambassador at the time."
Blum said any specifics, such as fees and contacts, were discussed only by the former associate, not by Abramoff.
"Mr. Abramoff never contemplated nor did he undertake this representation," Blum said.
The reported proposal to Sudan seems to fit Abramoff's willingness as a lobbyist to take on most any client who would pay the bills. He collected a $1.2-million fee from the Malaysian government and boasted of arranging a 2002 meeting with President Bush for that country's president, who was known for making derogatory comments about Jews.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiring to bribe public officials. He was sentenced in federal court in Florida last week to 5 years and 10 months in prison in connection with a casino boat venture.
To his clients, Abramoff offered connections to his well-placed contacts in the Bush administration, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, especially among Republicans.
In the case of Sudan, the former associate said Abramoff invoked his connections to Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who is running for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Reed had worked with Abramoff and other now-powerful conservatives decades earlier in the College Republicans organization.
In a statement, Reed's spokeswoman, Lisa Baron, said, "Under no circumstances would he have worked on behalf of the Sudan and he has never done so."
For years, Sudan has been a galvanizing issue for Christian conservatives, including the Christian Coalition. They aggressively lobbied both the Clinton and Bush administrations to side with Christians and other rebels in southern Sudan.
In January 2005, the two sides signed a peace agreement that finally ended the long civil war, in which both sides committed atrocities. The conflict left 1.5 million people dead and 4 million displaced, and left the economy in tatters. In 2003, a separate conflict broke out in the western region of Darfur, leaving more than 180,000 dead and displacing more than 2 million people. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide.
Abramoff's contact with the Sudanese was reported briefly by the National Journal in 2004.
According to the lobbyist's former associate, Abramoff sat with the ambassador in the skybox and described an elaborate and costly plan to blunt the effect of pressure from Christian groups with money and travel, two of the methods Abramoff frequently deployed in his Washington lobbying campaigns.
He said some of the money would be sent to the Christian Coalition and some would be spent encouraging Christian leaders to visit Sudan and talk with the government. Other money would be spent on a grass-roots campaign to promote a better image of the country in the United States.
The former associate said Abramoff repeatedly told the ambassador that he would arrange for his friend Reed to push the idea with Christian groups.
There was a follow-up discussion with the former associate when the Sudanese foreign minister came to Washington months later. The Cabinet minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, met with Abramoff's former associate at the Sudanese Embassy. Ismail seemed interested in Abramoff's services, the former associate said, but asked for guaranteed results, which Abramoff could not provide. The proposed deal went no further.
The idea of representing Sudan was first broached by Abramoff to his onetime associate in early 2002, the associate recalled. "Abramoff waved two videotapes at me that were made by a Christian rights organization and said that the tapes showed the need for Sudan to have Washington representation that could relieve this kind of pressure," he said.
A group called the Persecution Project had produced a video called "Sudan: The Hidden Holocaust," which a brochure said "reveals the unknown struggle of the African Christian tribes of central and southern Sudan who are presently engaged in a life-and-death battle against radical Moslem invaders from the north." Sudan has denied such accusations and said the Christian groups exaggerated the problems.
"Sudan was a hot-button issue that was at the forefront of our work and the work of many other [Christian] groups," said Matt Chancey, a spokesman for the Persecution Project.
Chancey said that in 2002 the groups were heavily lobbying Congress and the White House to maintain economic sanctions against Sudan, which had originally been imposed by the Clinton administration.
"We believed our government was appeasing the government of Sudan and not holding their feet to the fire," Chancey said.
At the time, the country, which was once a haven for Osama bin Laden, was under sanctions prohibiting tourist travel and doing any business with the government. To lobby for the government of Sudan requires a waiver from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.