Abramoff claimed close ties to Bush’s political guru

Three former associates of Jack Abramoff say the now-convicted
lobbyist frequently told them he had strong ties to the White House
through presidential confidant Karl Rove.

The White House said Monday night that Rove remembers meeting
Abramoff at a 1990s political meeting and considered the lobbyist a
“casual acquaintance” since President Bush took office in 2001.

New questions have arisen about Abramoff’s ties to the White House
since a photo emerged over the weekend showing Abramoff with Bush. The
White House would not release the photo or any others that Bush had
taken with Abramoff. Also surfacing were the contents of an e-mail from
Abramoff to Washingtonian magazine claiming he had met briefly with the
president nearly a dozen times and that Bush knew him well enough to
make joking references to Abramoff’s family.

Three former business associates of Abramoff, who worked with the
lobbyist in various roles between 2001 and 2004, told The Associated
Press that Abramoff routinely mentioned Rove when talking about his
influence inside the White House.

One said he was present when Abramoff took a call from Rove’s office
to confirm a White House meeting had been approved between Malaysia’s
prime minister and Bush in May 2002. Abramoff was being paid by
Malaysia for helping it in Washington, according to evidence the Senate
has made public.

All three associates would describe the Abramoff comments only on
condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation of Abramoff’s
work and fears that speaking out could affect their current businesses.
At least one said he had been interviewed by the FBI.

Abramoff was a $100,000 fundraiser for Bush and lobbying records
obtained by the AP show his lobbying team logged nearly 200 meetings
with the administration during its first 10 months in office on behalf
of one of his clients, the Northern Mariana Islands.

The contacts between Abramoff’s team and the administration included
meetings with Attorney General John Ashcroft and policy advisers to
Vice President Dick Cheney, the AP reported last year.

Abramoff’s former assistant, Susan Ralston, went to work for Rove in 2001. Abramoff’s legal team declined comment Monday night.

According to one of the three former associates, frequently
Abramoff’s cell phone would ring and the lobbyist would tell the
associate that the White House was calling. To prove that he wasn’t
making up what he was telling the associate, Abramoff occasionally
would hold up the phone so that the associate could see the incoming
call was indeed a White House phone number.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty in a fraud and bribery conspiracy case
and is cooperating with the investigation into those in Congress and
the administration he used to lobby.

Asked about the three former Abramoff associates’ account, the White
House said Rove shared a common past with Abramoff as leaders of a
young Republicans group decades ago.

“Mr. Rove remembers they had met at a political event in the 1990s,”
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said. “Since then, he would describe
him as a casual acquaintance.”

Healy said Rove has “no recollection” of talking to Abramoff about
the Malaysian prime minister’s meeting in May 2002. She said Bush first
met the prime minister at a foreign summit in October 2001 and that the
2002 meeting in the Oval Office was “another opportunity to get
together to discuss the war on terror.”

© 2006 The Associated Press