BRANCACCIO: We now push on toward the heart of darkness in politics, where the buying and selling of power takes place.
If you need something done in Washington, you can't do your own bidding. You need a powerbroker, also known as a lobbyist. There are tens of thousands of them. Many make fabulous fortunes using their connections to influence government rules and laws that can have profound effects on our lives.
For weeks now, correspondent Michele Mitchell and producer Brenda Breslauer have been working on a story that surged into the headlines this week.
It's about the money making side of the business of government and it's not pretty.
CONRAD: This is the most extraordinary pattern of abuse and criminal conduct that's come before this Committee in the entire 18 years I've served here.
MITCHELL: It takes a lot to shock the jaded power players in the nation's capital. But that's exactly what's been happening in an unfolding scandal involving Washington insiders who allegedly bilked Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees.
CONRAD: I believe there is criminal conduct here and it needs to be pursued, not only by this committee but by law enforcement as well.
MITCHELL: The FBI is investigating and, reportedly, so is a grand jury and five federal agencies. But the story is playing out before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. At the center of the nine-month investigation are two men: the first is a high-profile Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.
ABRAMOFF: I have no choice but to assert my various constitutional privileges against having to testify.
MITCHELL: The second is Michael Scanlon, a public relations consultant who often worked with Abramoff.
SCANLON: Upon the advice of counsel, I respectively invoke my fifth amendment privileges.
MITCHELL: Neither man is talking but Senate investigators have uncovered a trail of e-mails and documents that show the two are at least ethically challenged, if not criminal, and often outright racist.
CAMPBELL: You and Mr. Scanlon referred to tribes as morons, stupid idiots, monkeys, f-ing troglodytes which you define as a lower form of existence and losers.
Do you refer to all of your clients with the same kind of terminology you used for Indians, i.e. hideous monkeys, morons, and so on?
ABRAMOFF: I respectfully invoke the same privileges, sir.
MCCAIN: What sets this tale apart, what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit.
MITCHELL: To understand the extent of the scandal, you need to come here to the Tigua Indian reservation in El Paso, Texas. For years, the reservation had high crime and poverty rates. But all that changed in the 1990s when the Tiguas opened a casino. At its peak, it employed 1100 people and pulled in $60 million a year. The new wealth allowed the tribe to be self sustaining and they also gave back to the community.
HERNANDEZ: You could see that money, you could see it being put into good use. It's evident if you see the wellness center, the houses they're building, the education for our kids and the health care.
Rosa Hernandez served on the tribal committee that oversaw the casino project. Her three sons worked there.
HERNANDEZ: They've cut a lot of the programs. A lot of the programs. A lot of people ended up being unemployed.
MITCHELL: Despite public protest from the tribe and casino workers, in February 2002, a federal court ordered their Speaking Rock casino closed. Without the income from gaming, the Tiguas were faced with losing everything the tribe had achieved. Carlos Hisa is the lieutenant governor of the Tiguas.
HISA: We were so dependent on this casino, this revenue coming in, that we're struggling now.
MITCHELL: To get the casino reopened, the tribe knew it would need help in Washington. And if you need help in Washington, you need a lobbyist. After all, every interest group has one, there are over 30,000 lobbyists in D.C. The Tiguas needed somebody big, somebody powerful, somebody with the right connections… Enter Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff had the heavyweight resume: long-time Republican activist, close to influential Republican leader, Texas congressman Tom DeLay, and a senior director in the lobbying division at one of the largest law firms in Washington. Among his nearly 80 clients were some big name companies like Verizon, Eli Lilly, and Fannie Mae, according to records on file with Congress. Abramoff offered to help the Tiguas for free in exchange for future business. He seemed like he could deliver.
SENCLAIR: There was never a doubt. Never a doubt.
MITCHELL: Arturo Senclair is the governor of the Tigua tribe.
SENCLAIR: He did work for a reputable law firm. One of the top five in the nation. So how can you doubt that this individual isn't doing what he's saying?
MITCHELL: Abramoff wrote to the tribe that he had the connections to fix the "gross indignity perpetrated by the Texas state authorities" and assured the Tiguas he had already lined up "a couple of senators willing to ram this through."
In return, Abramoff asked for two things. First: that the tribe pay $4.2 million in fees to public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, a former communications director for congressman Tom DeLay.
HISA: So we took a chance and we elected to go ahead and move forward on this project and pay $4.2 million for it.
MITCHELL: Did you have the $4.2 million to spare?
HISA: Well not to spare. Those 4.2 million, we could use 'em right now.
MITCHELL: In addition to the $4.2 million fee to Scanlon, Abramoff, a major fundraiser for the Republican party, also advised the tribe that they needed to make $300,000 in political contributions. It all made sense to the Tiguas.
SENCLAIR: How is political game played here within the U.S.? Isn't it done through contributions? Contributions have to be made in certain instances. And when he's a high-profile lobbyist there in Washington, he must know what he's talking about. Otherwise, he wouldn't have the success that he did.
MITCHELL: At this point the tribe's tale takes a Hollywood turn. What the Tigua didn't know was that their well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the man who had promised to get their casino reopened, had already been using his connections…double dealing the tribe. It turns out that Abramoff and some of his friends had been working behind the scenes to shut down the casino in the first place.
SENCLAIR: I think we were marked.
MITCHELL: They were. What the Tiguas later learned was that Abramoff and Scanlon had been working for a Louisiana tribe with a casino. That tribe hired the men to eliminate potential competition. Part of Abramoff and Scanlon's strategy was to try to stop Indian gaming in Texas by claiming it was in violation of state law. That happened to include the Tiguas. So the men turned to a member of their network of influential and conservative old friends, in this case, the former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed.
STONE: Ralph was brought in because of his connections with the religious right, which were seen as very helpful in thwarting, you know, gambling in general.
MITCHELL: Journalist Peter Stone has been covering the scandal for the NATIONAL JOURNAL, and has reported on Abramoff's links to Reed.
STONE: And as somebody who had stature with conservatives, he was seen as an effective ally to build support against gambling.
MITCHELL: This year, Reed was the southeast regional chairman of the Bush campaign, turning out the religious right vote. His relationship with Jack Abramoff goes back more than two decades to demonstrations like this one. They met in the early 80's when Abramoff ran the College Republicans National Committee, and Reed was his executive director.
Now Abramoff and Scanlon enlisted Reed to mobilize his troops to work to close the tribal casinos and the e-mails made public in the Senate investigation reveal some of their strategy.
Reed reports, "We did get our pastors riled up last week…. Maybe that helped but who knows."
Abramoff replies, "We should continue to pile on until the place is shuttered."
And they did.
STONE: In the case of the Tiguas, their casino was closed. So Ralph was
MITCHELL: The intrigue is in how he was paid. Reed is an avowed foe of gambling. But, Reed was working for men being paid by a tribe operating a casino in another state. There's no evidence he knew. Reed wouldn't speak to us, but issued a public statement in September saying, "At no time were we retained by nor did we represent any casino or casino company."
Reed could say that because more than $2 million of his fees were channeled through an obscure think tank that Michael Scanlon had opened in this house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
STONE: So it appears that the think tank was a pass-through, or a conduit to help pay Reed. And perhaps protect him from public revelation that he was doing work for an Indian tribe with the casino.
MITCHELL: How many think tanks are located on the beach?
STONE: Well, it's a little odd. And that was one of the delicious parts of the story, learning about this obscure think tank that seemed to have very few employees. In fact, THE POST reported that one of the employees was a former lifeguard, and the other was a former yoga instructor.
MITCHELL: So here's where we are: it's February 2002 with the Tigua casino about to close. Abramoff saw a goldmine.
"I'm on the phone with Tigua," he e-mailed Scanlon. "Fire up the jet baby, we're going to El Paso!"
Scanlon replies, "I want all their money!!!" Abramoff e-mails back, "Yawzah!!"
HERNANDEZ: Here you have these, I don't know, well, important people. And they're just making a joke of the whole thing.
MITCHELL: A joke that cost the tribe over four million dollars. And there was one other thing the Tiguas didn't know. According to the Senate investigation, Michael Scanlon was splitting his profits about 50-50 with Jack Abramoff, their supposedly pro-bono lobbyist.
REYES: It paints a pretty ugly, nasty, corrupt picture of power.
MITCHELL: U.S. congressman Sylvestre Reyes represents El Paso, including the Tigua reservation.
REYES: I think Americans Democrats, Republicans, Independents, whatever their political affiliation, will be outraged at the way an Indian tribe was set up, marked, exploited, and shaken down by a corrupt political system.
MITCHELL: But Abramoff and Scanlon did try to use that system to do something for the tribe. They found a sympathetic ear with Ohio Republican Bob Ney, according to this week's Senate hearings. Abramoff asked the Tiguas to contribute $32,000 to the congressman's fundraising committees. The tribe even met with Ney for almost two hours and Ney reportedly was willing to push legislation that would have allowed the Tiguas to reopen their casino. He backed off, he said in a statement, once he realized the provision had no other congressional support.
Ney now says he, too, was "duped" by Abramoff. There's plenty of outrage to go around.
CONRAD: I would say to my colleagues, and I'd say to you, Mr. Abramoff, shame on you. Shame on you.
MITCHELL: It's now clear the Tiguas are only one piece of a very large puzzle. So far Senate investigators have found that six tribes gave at least 66 million dollars worth of business to Scanlon and Abramoff, over three years. That's more than a major corporation like General Electric spent in lobbying during the same period.
STONE: And of that 66 million, we've learned now, at least 21 million went to Scanlon personally, and 21 million went to Abramoff personally. So, they personally did very, very well through this business.
MITCHELL: And just what were Abramoff and Scanlon doing with their money? Well, they bought multimillion dollar homes. Here's Abramoff's in Silver Spring, Maryland and here's a $4.7 million property Scanlon bought on the Delaware shore.
STONE: Few lobbyists in Washington see that kind of money from one client ever in their lifetimes. Virtually nobody sees that kind of money in their lifetime.
MITCHELL: But virtually everyone understands that to get what you want in Washington, you have to pay to play. And while Abramoff and Scanlon stand accused of being corrupt, they are only a small part of the profitable business of influence-peddling in politics.
MCCAIN: Do you have any remorse, Mr. Scanlon?
SCANLON: Unfortunately at this time Senator, I must decline to answer that question based upon my 5th amendment privileges. Hopefully in the future, I'll have an opportunity to do so.
MCCAIN: I don't know how you go to sleep at night really. I would hope your conscience bothers you.
MITCHELL: Simply put, these two men appear to have taken a system ripe for abuse and abused it. And just look at the circles they moved in. Abramoff was a Bush pioneer, meaning he raised over $100,000 for the campaign. His former assistant now works for Karl Rove. That's Michael Scanlon next to his former boss Tom DeLay, the man who's turned fundraising into an art form. And remember, Abramoff also had close ties to the majority leader.
STONE: Part of Jack's m.o. in doing this work for the tribe was as a vehicle to raise money.
MITCHELL: And where was Jack Abramoff sending most of those campaign contributions from the tribes?
STONE: According to campaign finance records that I've seen, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the funds they gave wound up in Republican coffers.
MITCHELL: Abramoff also had the tribes contribute to various old friends and political allies like Grover Norquist, who runs the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform. He has been a friend of Abramoff's since their days in the College Republicans. Norquist's group got $25,000 from one of Abramoff's tribes.
STONE: Jack did very well with the tribes. He talked… convinced them that they ought to give lavishly to both campaign committees. Individual members of Congress. Conservative groups. Couldn't do much better.
MITCHELL: There is an irony to all this wasn't lost as the hearings continued in Washington this week. Abramoff's effectiveness in redistributing the tribes' wealth to his political friends and causes seems beyond dispute. If only he had been as effective on behalf of his clients, the Tiguas. Back in El Paso, their casino remains closed.
HISA: When you're elected to these positions, we sit as a father. Our roles are as a father to the tribe. And when harm is brought upon one of your children, it's the worst thing that can happen. And that's what happened. These individuals harmed our children. The counsel's children, my children.
MITCHELL: Have you spoken to Jack Abramoff or Michael Scanlon since you found out all this information?
SENCLAIR: No I have not.
MITCHELL: Would you like to speak to either one of them?
SENCLAIR: I don't think there's much to say to them. I mean the ever-ending question is, Why would you do this? But you know it's greed, it's basically greed. I doubt that we're ever going to hear, "Hey I'm sorry." I don't think they're that type of individuals to find any remorse within their heart. They're not remorseful. It's all about the dollar.