$25,000 to Lobby Group Is Tied to Access to Bush
By PHILIP SHENON
WASHINGTON, March 9 — The chief of an Indian tribe represented by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff was admitted to a meeting with President Bush in 2001 days after the tribe paid a prominent conservative lobbying group $25,000 at Mr. Abramoff's direction, according to documents and interviews.
The payment was made to Americans for Tax Reform, a group run by Grover G. Norquist, one of the Republican Party's most influential policy strategists. Mr. Norquist was a friend and longtime associate of Mr. Abramoff.
The meeting with Mr. Bush took place on May 9, 2001, at a reception organized by Mr. Norquist to marshal support for the president's 2001 tax cuts, which were pending before Congress. About two dozen state legislators attended the session in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds. The meeting was called to thank legislators for support of the tax-cut plan, an issue on which the tribal leader had no direct involvement.
Mr. Norquist attended the meeting, along with Mr. Abramoff and the tribal leader, Raul Garza of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas. It is not clear what role, if any, Mr. Norquist played in getting Chief Garza into the meeting, and there is no suggestion that the White House was aware of the $25,000 payment.
But the transaction adds new details to what is known about how Mr. Abramoff used his links to well-connected conservatives to establish himself among his lobbying clients as having access to the highest levels of power in Washington. Mr. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt public officials and is cooperating with the Justice Department investigation.
The transaction could also focus further attention on Mr. Norquist's group, which is already under scrutiny by the Justice Department and Congressional investigators over its ties to Mr. Abramoff. On being presented with a copy of a letter dated May 10, 2001, in which one of its officials acknowledged receipt of the $25,000 donation, Americans for Tax Reform responded that it did not seek money for White House access.
John Kartch, the group's communications director, said, "No money was ever collected for admission to these events."
Mr. Kartch described the reception as one of several gatherings with President Bush sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform in support of his economic policies. "No lobbying occurred at these events, which were similar in nature to a bill-signing, with people listening to the president speak," he said.
Mr. Kartch said the anti-tax group "did not want liberals unfairly smearing tribes that supported the president's agenda."
There is only one other documented instance in which Mr. Abramoff was able to obtain a White House meeting for one of his tribal clients through Mr. Norquist, and it occurred the same day of the visit by the Kickapoo leader. On that day, a leader of a Louisiana tribe has said he attended a separate event by Americans for Tax Reform that was also attended by Mr. Bush.
Documents obtained by investigators for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee show that the second tribe, the Louisiana Coushattas, also paid $25,000 to Mr. Norquist's group shortly before the meeting, although the tribe has been unwilling to say if its chief had the same opportunity as the Kickapoo chief to talk briefly with Mr. Bush and be photographed with him.
The May 9 reception attended by Chief Garza was photographed by a White House photographer. One of the photographs became public last month, and showed Mr. Abramoff in the far background as Mr. Bush greeted Chief Garza. It was the first picture showing Mr. Abramoff in the same setting with Mr. Bush, who has said he does not remember meeting the lobbyist.
A former senior tribal official, Isidro Garza, who is not related to Raul Garza, said the $25,000 donation to Americans for Tax Reform was solicited days earlier by Mr. Abramoff, who often encouraged his clients to donate to Mr. Norquist's group. Most of the tribe's money comes from a casino it operates near the Mexican border.
Isidro Garza said Mr. Abramoff did not say directly that the $25,000 was the price of admission to the meeting with Mr. Bush.
Mr. Abramoff, he said, described the donation to Mr. Norquist's group as a "good investment" in the tribe's lobbying efforts in Washington. Mr. Garza said he arranged for the payment although he saw little direct connection between the tribe's interests and those of Americans for Tax Reform.
A White House spokesman, Dana Perino, said that White House officials were "absolutely not" aware of the Kickapoos' $25,000 payment to Americans for Tax Reform and that the May 2001 reception was an effort to thank "people who had expressed support for the president" on the tax cuts.
Isidro Garza and Raul Garza are both under indictment in Texas on federal embezzlement charges involving the use of tribal money.
Isidro Garza, who functioned as the chief counselor to Chief Garza, said he was willing to reveal details about the $25,000 payment and the White House meeting in hope of having the government determine whether anyone in Washington manipulated their ouster from the tribe, the act that led to the criminal charges.
Mr. Abramoff might have had reason to want an overhaul of the tribe's leadership. In 2001, Isidro Garza said, the Kickapoos rejected a proposal from Michael Scanlon, Mr. Abramoff's business partner, that the tribe pay $2 million in fees for a lobbying campaign on behalf of the tribe's casino. A lawyer for Raul Garza, Jason Davis of San Antonio, said Chief Garza "got caught in the crossfire of tribal politics" when he was ousted as the tribal leader in 2002, and "the question is whether he also got caught in the crossfire of national politics."
Through his lawyers, Mr. Abramoff had no comment on the White House meeting with the Kickapoos. A lawyer for Mr. Scanlon, who has also pleaded guilty in the case, did not return telephone calls.
In a letter dated May 10, 2001, the day after the White House reception, Americans for Tax Reform acknowledged the contribution from the Kickapoos, who had sought help from Mr. Abramoff in lobbying on behalf of its casino. "Thank you for your generous support of our work," wrote Jennifer Kuhn, the tax group's vice president for finance. "I have received your contribution for $25,000."
A copy of the letter was provided to The New York Times by Isidro Garza and was then forwarded to Americans for Tax Reform for comment. The group did not comment on the document or explain the detailed circumstances of the Kickapoo's invitation to the White House.