Duane Gibson, a Washington lobbyist under federal scrutiny in the Jack Abramoff scandal, helped raise money for a California congressman who championed legislation that would benefit Western mining interests that Gibson represented.
Last fall, Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, attached an amendment to a budget bill -- without hearings or floor debate -- that would have opened national forest and other public land to mining. The so-called Pombo provision passed the House, but was deleted from the bill in the Senate when several Western state senators and governors complained that it would endanger vast portions of federal land.
Three months before Pombo inserted the amendment, Gibson and his lobbying firm had a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for the congressman. Although the total raised at the July event is not known, Gibson contributed $1,000, and additional donations came from mining companies, including at least one that Gibson has represented.
The fundraiser and Pombo’s action apparently broke no laws. But, as the Abramoff scandal continues to roil the capital, they reflect the symbiotic, cozy relationship between lobbyists and legislators that congressional leaders say they want to curb.
Abramoff made his name and fortune by hiring veteran Capitol Hill aides such as Gibson and turning them into lobbyists. By tapping into the former aides’ access to powerful members of Congress and their insider experience, Abramoff attracted clients and collected huge fees.
It was precisely those types of connections that came into play last year over the mining measure.
As a former top legal aide on the House Resources Committee, Gibson was familiar with the subject. Later, as a lobbyist, he had an inside track to push the mining companies’ agenda. And helping a committee chairman such as Pombo raise money virtually guaranteed that the wishes of Gibson’s clients would be addressed.
Gibson did not respond to requests for an interview.
Pombo’s chief spokesman on the committee, Brian Kennedy, said in a recent interview that the congressman knew Gibson from his prior work on the committee but that there was no deep relationship beyond that.
“It would certainly stand to reason he would be supportive of Chairman Pombo and [his] efforts on the Resources Committee,” Kennedy said. “The chairman does have fundraisers, but these are scheduled and organized outside the Resources Committee.”
Kennedy said Pombo’s amendment would have helped save “ghost towns” in the West where communities might die when mining operations shut down -- sometimes because they could not expand.
A lawyer, Gibson served as a GOP legal counsel to the Resources Committee and the House Transportation Committee.
In 2000, he was part of the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot in which young Republicans descended on the Miami-Dade County polling headquarters in Florida during the presidential recount, chanting “Stop the fraud!”
Gibson was the key investigator in the Resources Committee’s work on behalf of a Texas businessman under investigation by federal banking regulators. When committee members, including Pombo, went to bat for the businessman, Charles Hurwitz, the case against him was ultimately dropped. Hurwitz has been a Pombo contributor.
In 2002, Gibson left his work on Capitol Hill and joined Abramoff’s lobbying business at the Washington firm of Greenberg Traurig. “He will be an asset to our clients in Washington, D.C., and around the country,” Fred W. Baggett, chairman of the firm’s national governmental affairs practice, said at the time.
But after the Abramoff scandal began to unfold two years ago, Gibson left the firm, and last year joined another Washington lobbying concern, the Livingston Group. In announcing his role as a consultant, the firm noted that with 15 years on Capitol Hill, Gibson had “extensive experience ... producing results for clients.”
Gibson’s name has surfaced in e-mails made public in the Abramoff scandal, including in a February 2004 exchange in which Abramoff associates were discussing a Washington Post article about an FBI investigation into their activities.
Gibson, then still working for Abramoff, e-mailed his colleagues that he considered the article “not all that bad.” Michael E. Williams, another lobbyist working for Abramoff, was astounded. “Is he tone deaf or is it me?” Williams asked in an e-mail to colleagues, disparaging Gibson’s comment.
“Shouldn’t the mention of the FBI alarm a legal eagle like him?” Kevin Ring, an Abramoff lobbyist who previously worked for California Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), asked in an e-mail. He added: “If people start chiming in with stupid quotes like Duane’s, I am going to snap.”
Gibson’s name has also appeared in grand jury subpoenas as the federal task force in Washington continues to ratchet up its investigation. Abramoff has pleaded guilty in cases in Florida and Washington, and many are bracing for charges against others.
For instance, a grand jury subpoena was sent to the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, once a client of Abramoff’s that reportedly paid his firm as much as $32 million. Gibson has also listed the tribe as a client.
The subpoena, asking that documents be turned over to the grand jury, specifically sought materials relating to Abramoff and several of his “agents and associates,” including Gibson.
This year, according to Pombo spokesman Kennedy, Gibson began working as an advisor to a task force set up by Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, a Republican running for governor. Gibbons is chairman of the Resources Committee’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.
Another client is Stephen D. Alfers, who runs NewWest Gold Corp., a Colorado firm with mining operations in California and other Western states. He hired Gibson for advice on how to loosen a federal moratorium on the sale of federal lands.
Alfers said he was one of a handful of mining executives who hired Gibson to lobby Congress on their behalf. “He’s good; he’s very knowledgeable,” Alfers said of Gibson.
Alfers said he did not attend the Pombo fundraiser or donate to the congressman, but added that he and other mining executives were pleased to see Congress taking industry issues seriously. He said they especially liked the amendment Pombo attached to the budget bill.
An alliance of Western politicians warned that if approved by the Senate, the measure “could see these lands lost to the public as they pass into private ownership.” Environmental groups also were wary.
David Gowdey, head of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, called the Pombo provision “a backdoor approach,” saying in an interview that “it was like something done behind closed doors in the middle of the night.”
Alfers and others in favor of changing mining laws said the measure might have prevailed had it gone through the normal legislative process, with hearings before Pombo’s committee and a floor debate.
Instead, he said, the amendment “was really a Chairman Pombo effort,” and “that caused a great deal of confusion” over why it was happening so suddenly.
It also remains unclear what effect, if any, the fundraiser held by Gibson and his firm had on Pombo. The event was held at the Capitol Hill home of Bernie Robinson, a colleague in Gibson’s firm. Robinson, like Gibson, gave Pombo $1,000. Other firm members donated money as well.
“I’m a lobbyist, and I’m happy to raise money for these people,” Robinson said. “Duane’s a very respected colleague, and he asked me to help. I was glad to.”