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By JOHN SOLOMON and SHARON THEIMER
A visit to the White House would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime treat for most Americans. For conservative tax strategist Grover Norquist it could be considered a common event.
White House officials say Norquist, who runs the nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform, was cleared for 97 visits to the White House complex between 2001 and 2006 — a couple of times a month if spread evenly over the five-year period.
A half-dozen of the visits were to events that involved the president.
The Bush administration on Wednesday released Secret Service visit records to settle a lawsuit by the Democratic Party and an ethics watchdog group seeking visitors logs for Norquist, fellow Republican activist Ralph Reed and other figures in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
The congressional and criminal investigations of Abramoff produced evidence suggesting the lobbyists won access to the Bush White House through conservative activists like Norquist and Reed. The long-sought visitor logs answer the question of how often those two men got inside the White House during the time they were simultaneously supporting the president and assisting Abramoff.
Earlier this month, the White House suggested to the judge in that lawsuit that such records need not be disclosed because the information was privileged and might reveal how Bush and his staff get private advice, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia earlier this year, got 18 meetings, including two events with Bush.
Officials said they believe all the appointments with Bush involved larger group settings, such as Christmas parties or policy briefings for GOP supporters.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, however, it was possible some of Norquist’s meetings might have been directly with Karl Rove, the president’s longtime confidant and political strategist.
"He is one of a number of individuals who worked to advance fiscal responsibility, which is one of the key aspects of the president’s agenda," Perino said.
The records show Norquist’s escort to his appointments was sometimes Rove aide Susan Ralston, a former Abramoff lobbying colleague.
Both Reed and Norquist became involved with Abramoff, the once high-powered GOP lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to fraud and is now cooperating with prosecutors in an investigation into influence-peddling that has rocked Capitol Hill.
Norquist’s group advocates lower taxes and less government, and he built it into a major force in the Republican Party. Along the way he became friends with Abramoff and Rove.
E-mails obtained this summer by AP show Norquist facilitated several administration contacts for Abramoff’s clients while the lobbyist simultaneously solicited those clients for large donations to Norquist’s group. Americans for Tax Reform acknowledged Norquist helped Abramoff but said he did nothing improper.
Reed rose to prominence as an organizer of evangelical Christian groups, including the Christian Coalition, inside the Republican Party before moving into business ventures where he did work for Indian tribes at Abramoff’s request.
Documents unearthed by congressional investigators showed Abramoff and business partner Michael Scanlon routed about $4 million from Indian tribes to Reed-controlled entities for grassroots work aimed at blocking rival gambling casinos.
The White House also released records showing White House appointments landed by some of Abramoff’s former lobbying associates.
Among them, Neil Volz, a former aide to Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, had 18 appointments, including one to attend a large event featuring Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, that was canceled because of the terrorist attacks. Volz has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt Ney and others with trips and other largess.
Another — Tony Rudy, a former aide to then-Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay — had 13, none with Bush. Rudy has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff.
The release of the visitor records settles lawsuits by the Democratic Party and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
In a court filing earlier this month while settlement discussions were ongoing, Justice Department lawyers representing the administration said information about the Norquist and Reed visits should be protected from public disclosure under the doctrine of "deliberative process privilege."
That privilege lets the president and executive branch officials seek advice and deliberate policy decisions in private without having to disclose such information under the Freedom of Information Act.
It is similar to executive privilege, a power made famous by President Nixon, that lets a president keep information secret even from Congress or the courts on the grounds that it would hurt his ability to get candid advice.
Executive privilege was the focal point of major legal battles in the Watergate and Clinton impeachment cases.
Bush administration lawyers wrote that Norquist and Reed were "prominent advocates of particular tax policies and other conservative policies" and that releasing information about their White House visits would "inherently reveal the structure and nature of deliberative processes."
"In making decisions on personnel and policy, and in formulating legislative proposals, the president must be free to seek confidential information from many sources, both inside the government and outside," the lawyers wrote in citing a favorable court ruling from 2005 involving Vice President Dick Cheney.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said she saw a pattern of the White House trying to avoid answering legitimate questions.
"By trying to extend a special privilege typically reserved for U.S. government employees, to protect their Abramoff cronies like Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, the Bush administration showed just how willing they are to manipulate the law to hide the truth and protect their political interests," Finney said.
The administration lawyers, meanwhile, also argued against releasing information about the White House visits of former federal procurement official David Safavian on the grounds that it would violate Safavian’s privacy. Safavian was recently convicted of trying to cover up his dealings with Abramoff.
Administration officials said the Justice Department never invoked the privilege mentioned in the court filings because a settlement was reached.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press