When the government of Malaysia sought to repair its tarnished image in the U.S. by arranging a meeting between President Bush and its controversial prime minister in 2002, it followed the same strategy as many other well-heeled interests in Washington: It called on lobbyist Jack Abramoff for help.
It was a tall order. The then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had been chastised by the Clinton administration for repeated anti-Semitic statements and for jailing political opponents. But it was important to the Malaysians, according to a former Abramoff associate who attended meetings with the Malaysian ambassador and the lobbyist.
Abramoff contacted presidential advisor Karl Rove on at least four occasions to help arrange a meeting, the witness said.
Finally, the former associate said, Rove’s office called to tell Abramoff that the Malaysian leader soon would be getting an official White House invitation.
Neither the former Abramoff associate nor any others who spoke about the Malaysian contacts wanted their names used, out of fear they might damage future business opportunities.
In May 2002, Mahathir met with Bush in the Oval Office; his photograph with the president was beamed around the world.
Abramoff received $1.2 million from the Malaysian government for his lobbying services in 2001 and 2002, the former associate said. Documents obtained by Senate investigators appear to confirm at least $900,000 of that amount.
It’s not clear how central Abramoff was in arranging the Oval Office session. The White House says the meeting was arranged through normal channels.
But it was clear, the former associate said, that Abramoff took credit for it. His reputation for close relationships with the White House and congressional officials enabled him to charge stratospheric fees from his lobbying clients -- and the president’s meeting with Malaysia’s prime minister enhanced that reputation.
The Malaysia episode sheds new light on the practices of Abramoff, the man at the center of a burgeoning corruption scandal, and suggests closer ties than previously acknowledged between the disgraced lobbyist and the highest levels of the Bush White House.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to improperly influencing members of Congress and their aides -- offering foreign travel and other benefits and later seeking favors from some of them. He often routed lobbying fees through nonprofit organizations to evade taxes or hide the sources of the funds.
The Malaysian payments were made to the American International Center, a bogus think tank that an Abramoff partner, Michael P.S. Scanlon, set up at a Delaware beach house. Abramoff and Scanlon have admitted using the center to collect millions from their lobbying clients.
By routing the money in that way, Abramoff identified his client on federal lobbying disclosure forms as the Delaware-based center and avoided having to register with the Justice Department as an agent of a foreign government.
After the Malaysian leader’s White House meeting, the former associate said, Abramoff was invited to a dinner honoring the prime minister at the Malaysian Embassy and was given a seat near the head table.
At least one other Washington lobbying firm -- Alexander Strategies, which was run by an Abramoff friend and former chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- was compensated during this period for helping boost Malaysia’s reputation in Washington. That firm was also given credit in some circles for helping to arrange the White House meeting and separate trips for leading members of Congress, including DeLay and several Democrats, to Malaysia.
The former associate was the only person to observe Abramoff’s direct contacts with Rove, and he heard only Abramoff’s end of the conversation. He recalled Abramoff picking up his ringing cellphone, looking at the caller identification and saying, “It’s Karl.” Abramoff listened for a few seconds and gave the former associate the thumbs-up sign. Abramoff then closed his phone and said the official invitation was forthcoming. “Call the ambassador,” he said.
Apart from the direct contacts between Rove and Abramoff, the former associate’s description of the Malaysia episode was backed by another former Abramoff associate and by documents released last year by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Both said Abramoff talked of his access to Rove and cited his relationship with Susan Ralston, Rove’s administrative assistant. Before joining the White House staff, Ralston was an assistant to Abramoff.
One of the former associates said Abramoff referred to Ralston as his “implant” in the White House.
A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, said Tuesday that Rove had “no recollection” of any conversations with Abramoff regarding the Malaysian meeting.
She said the meeting was arranged through “normal staffing channels.”
The meeting took place as Malaysian and U.S. officials were discussing that nation’s participation in the post-Sept. 11 campaign against terrorism. Malaysia is a heavily Muslim country.
“At the time [Mahathir] was Asia’s longest-serving prime minister and an influential Islamic leader,” Healy said. “The president met with him to discuss Malaysia’s role in the war on terrorism.”
Healy said Rove considered Abramoff a “casual acquaintance.”
White House officials said Ralston’s hiring had nothing to do with her prior association with Abramoff. Healy said she was a “valued member of the White House team.”
Although White House officials have taken pains to distance Bush and his aides from Abramoff, hoping to shield the president from the scandal’s political fallout, former associates say Abramoff often bragged of his ties to the highest levels of the administration.
One lobbyist recalls Abramoff’s frequent refrain when confronting important legislative issues: “I’ll call Karl on that.”
The Malaysian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on Abramoff’s work.
Bills from the American International Center to the Malaysian Embassy have been turned over to a Senate committee investigating Abramoff’s representation of Indian tribes, which he has admitted to defrauding.
Lobbying records show that Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the center but did not disclose that the funds originated with the government of Malaysia.
According to one of Abramoff’s former associates, Abramoff said he did not need to disclose Malaysia as a client on federal lobbying disclosure forms -- or to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department -- because the money had come from the American International Center.
Abramoff’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment on any aspect of Abramoff’s work for Malaysia.
The failure of Abramoff and his colleagues at Greenberg Traurig to register as foreign agents was initially a topic of interest to the Justice Department, which is investigating Abramoff’s contacts with lawmakers and executive branch officials as part of an ongoing fraud and bribery case. Abramoff has pleaded guilty in that case and is helping federal prosecutors. But a person familiar with that inquiry said the issue had not been pursued recently, perhaps because the law had many loopholes.
This person, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Abramoff’s relationship with Rove had “not been a matter of any great significance” in the Justice Department inquiry.
The Oval Office meeting with Mahathir, on May 14, 2002, was publicly warm, with Bush praising Mahathir for his “friendship” and “strong support” in the war on terrorism.
The meeting rehabilitated the Malaysian leader’s reputation only temporarily, and the appearance of friendliness between the two emerged as a political headache for Bush.
Eight months after the meeting, Mahathir surprised the opening session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by warning the U.S. against its looming invasion of Iraq -- “out-terrorizing the terrorists,” he called it.
Later that year, he said the U.S. was fighting terrorism “through attacking Muslim countries and Muslims, whether they are guilty or not.”
He went on to make anti-Semitic comments, charging that “Jews rule this world” and get “others to fight and die for them.”
Democrats charged that Bush was slow to rebuke the prime minister.
In October 2003, he pulled Mahathir aside at an international economic conference to express his disapproval, calling the remarks “wrong” and “divisive,” according to a White House spokesman.
Mahathir later emerged as an issue in Bush’s reelection campaign, as Republicans aggressively courted Jewish voters.
One such GOP outreach featured Mahathir pictured beside Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat above a Kerry quote in which he said “foreign leaders” wanted him to win the election. The campaign mailer suggested Mahathir and Arafat, “renowned for their hatred of the Jewish people,” supported Kerry.
On one occasion, Abramoff -- an orthodox Jew and a supporter of Israel -- was asked whether he was comfortable representing a country led by a man known for anti-Semitic comments.
Abramoff responded, “They pay their bills on time.”
Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.