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