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Democrat Reid also took Abramoff client money and went to bat for them

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February 10, 2006

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid portrays convicted lobbyist Jack
Abramoff’s activities as involving only Republicans. But Abramoff’s
billing records and congressional correspondence tell a different story.

They show Abramoff’s lobbying team billed for nearly two dozen
contacts with Reid’s office in a single year to mostly discuss
Democratic legislation that would have set the minimum hourly wage for
the Northern Mariana Islands, an Abramoff client, initially almost $3
lower than other U.S. states and territories.

Reid, D-Nev., also wrote at least four letters to the Bush
administration helpful to Indian tribes Abramoff represented, often
collecting donations from Abramoff-related sources around the same time.

And in the midst of the contacts, Abramoff’s firm hired one of
Reid’s top legislative aides to lobby for the tribal and Marianas
clients. The aide then helped throw a fundraiser for Reid at Abramoff’s
firm.

The activities _ detailed in billing records and correspondence
obtained by The Associated Press _ are far more extensive than
previously disclosed. They occurred over three years as Reid collected
nearly $68,000 in donations from Abramoff’s firm, lobbying partners and
clients.

Ethics rules require senators to avoid even the appearance of a
conflict of interest in collecting contributions around the times they
take official acts benefiting donors.

Reid’s office acknowledged Thursday having “routine contacts” with
Abramoff’s lobbying partners and intervening on some government matters
_ such as blocking some tribal casinos _ in ways Abramoff’s clients
might have deemed helpful. But it said none of his actions were
affected by donations or done for Abramoff.

“All the actions that Senator Reid took were consistent with his
long-held beliefs, such as not letting tribal casinos expand beyond
reservations, and were taken to defend the interests of Nevada
constituents,” spokesman Jim Manley said.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty in a fraud and bribery case and is now
helping prosecutors investigate lawmakers, congressional aides and
administration officials his team used to lobby.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to comment on the Reid contacts.

Reid has assailed Republicans’ ties to Abramoff while refusing to
return any of his own donations. He argues there’s no need to return
the money.

“Senator Reid never met Jack Abramoff and never has taken
contributions from him, and efforts to drag him into this are going to
fail,” Manley said. “Abramoff is a convicted felon and no one has
suggested the other partners we might have dealt with have done
anything impermissible.”

While Abramoff never directly donated to Reid, the lobbyist did
instruct one tribe, the Coushattas, to send $5,000 to Reid’s tax-exempt
political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund, in 2002. About the
same time, Reid sent a letter to the Interior Department helpful to the
tribe, records show.

Abramoff sent a list to the tribe entitled “Coushatta Requests”
recommending donations to campaigns or groups for 50 lawmakers he
claimed were helpful to the tribe. Alongside Reid’s name, Abramoff
wrote, “5,000 (Searchlight Leadership Fund) Senate Majority Whip.”

Following a pattern seen with Abramoff and Republicans, Abramoff’s
Democratic team members often delivered donations to Reid close to key
events.

Reid and his Senate counsel Jim Ryan met with Abramoff deputy Ronald
Platt on June 5, 2001, “to discuss timing on minimum wage bill” that
affected the Marianas, according to a bill that Greenberg Traurig,
Abramoff’s firm, sent the Marianas.

Three weeks before the meeting, Greenberg Traurig’s political action
committee donated $1,000 to Reid’s Senate re-election committee. Three
weeks after the meeting, Platt himself donated $1,000 to Reid.

Manley said Reid’s official calendar doesn’t list a meeting on June
5, 2001, with Platt, but he also said he couldn’t say for sure the
contact didn’t occur. Manley confirmed Platt had regular contacts with
Reid’s office, calling them part of the “routine checking in” by
lobbyists who work Capitol Hill.

As for the timing of donations, Manley said: “There is no connection. This is just a typical part of lawful fundraising.”

The U.S. territorial islands in the Pacific Ocean were one of
Abramoff’s highest-paying clients and were trying to keep their textile
industry exempt from most U.S. laws on immigration, labor and pay,
including the minimum wage. Many Democrats have long accused the
islands of running garment sweatshops.

The islands in 2001 had their own minimum wage of $3.05 an hour, and were exempt from the U.S. minimum of $5.15.

Republicans were intent on protecting the Marianas’ exemption.
Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George
Miller of California, wanted the Marianas to be covered by the U.S.
minimum and crafted a compromise.

In February 2001, Kennedy introduced a bill that would have raised
the U.S. hourly minimum to $6.65 and would have covered the Marianas.
The legislation, which eventually failed, would have given the islands
an initial break by setting the minimum at just $3.55 _ nearly $3 lower
than any other territory or state _ and then gradually increasing it.

Within a month, Platt began billing for routine contacts and
meetings with Reid’s staff, starting with a March 26, 2001, contact
with Reid chief of staff Susan McCue to “discuss timing and status of
minimum wage legislation,” billing records say.

In all, Platt and a fellow lobbyist reported 21 contacts in 2001 with Reid’s office, mostly with McCue and Ryan.

One of the Marianas contacts, listed for May 30, 2001, was with
Edward Ayoob, Reid’s legislative counsel. Within a year, Ayoob had left
Reid’s office to work for Abramoff’s firm, registering to lobby for the
islands as well as several tribes. Manley confirmed Ayoob had
subsequent lobbying contacts with Reid’s office.

Manley cast doubt on some of the contacts recorded in the billing
records, saying McCue was out of Washington for a couple of the dates.
But he acknowledged the contacts could have occurred by cell phone.

In January 2002, McCue took a free trip, valued at $7,000, to
Malaysia with several other congressional aides. The trip, cleared by
Senate ethics officials, was underwritten by the U.S. Malaysia Exchange
Association, a group trying to foster better relations between the
United States and Malaysia.

The trips were part of a broader lobbying strategy by Malaysia,
which consulted with Abramoff and paid $300,000 to a company connected
to him, according to documents released by Senate investigators. The
arrangements included a trip by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
and his wife to Malaysia in October 2001.

While Abramoff worked behind the scenes, the Alexander Strategy
Group run by two former DeLay aides, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy, publicly
registered to lobby for the U.S. Malaysia Exchange Association.

Rudy, who was cited in Abramoff’s court case, had worked temporarily
for Abramoff before joining Buckham at Alexander Strategy, and the
three men were friendly. In January 2002, Alexander Strategy arranged
two congressional trips to Malaysia underwritten by the association.

One trip took a delegation of Republican congressmen. A Democratic
consultant hired by Alexander Strategy, former Clinton White House aide
Joel Johnson, invited McCue and went on the second trip with
congressional staffers.

Johnson said he invited McCue on behalf of Alexander Strategy and
went on the trip with her but said he knew of no connections to
Abramoff. “My interest was in getting Democrats to travel to the
country and to learn more about Malaysia,” Johnson said.

Reid intervened on other matters.

On March 5, 2002, he sent a letter to the Interior Department
pressing the agency to reject a proposed casino by the Jena band of
Choctaw Indians in Louisiana. Fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a
Republican, also signed.

The Jena’s proposed casino would have rivaled one already in
operation in Louisiana run by the Coushattas, and Abramoff was lobbying
to block the Jena. The day after Reid’s letter, the Coushattas wrote a
$5,000 check to Reid’s Searchlight group at Abramoff’s suggestion.

Reid and Ensign recently wrote the Senate Ethics Committee to say
their letter had nothing to do with Abramoff or the donation and
instead reflected their interest in protecting Las Vegas’ gambling
establishments.

“As senators for the state with the largest nontribal gaming
industry in the nation, we have long opposed the growth of
off-reservation tribal gaming throughout the United States,” Ensign and
Reid wrote. Reid authored the law legalizing casinos on reservations,
and has long argued it does not allow tribal gambling off reservations.

On Nov. 8, 2002, the Nevada Democrat signed a letter with California
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein urging Interior Secretary Gale Norton
to reject a proposal by the Cuyapaipe Band of Mission Indians to
convert land for a health clinic into a casino in southern California.

The casino would have competed with the Palm Springs gambling establishment run by the Agua Caliente, one of Abramoff’s tribes.

Two weeks later, Reid went to the Senate floor to oppose fellow
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s effort to win congressional approval
for a Michigan casino for the Bay Mills Indians, which would have
rivaled one already operating by the Saginaw Chippewa represented by
Abramoff.

“The legislation is fundamentally flawed,” Reid argued, successfully leading the opposition to Stabenow’s proposal.

The next month, Reid joined six other Democratic senators in asking
President Bush in mid-December 2002 to spend an additional $30 million
for Indian school construction. Several Abramoff tribes, including the
Saginaw and the Mississippi Choctaw, were seeking federal money for
school building.

Six weeks after that letter, three Abramoff partners _ including
Platt and Ayoob _ donated a total of $4,000 to Reid’s Senate
re-election campaign. Later in 2003, the Agua Caliente contributed
$13,500 to Reid’s political groups while the Saginaw chipped in $9,000.

Reid sent a fourth letter on April 30, 2003, joining Ensign a second time to urge Interior to reject the Jena casino.

A couple of months later, Abramoff’s firm threw a fundraiser for
Reid at its Washington office that netted the Nevada senator several
more donations from Greenberg Traurig lobbyists and their spouses.
Ayoob was instrumental in staging the event, Reid’s office said.

___

Associated Press Writer Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this story.

© 2006 The Associated Press