WASHINGTON — Two eyewitnesses say that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff proposed to sell his services to the much-criticized government of Sudan to help improve its abysmal reputation in the United States, especially among Christian evangelicals who were campaigning against human rights violations in the troubled African nation.
Khidir Haroun Ahmed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview that Abramoff proposed a multimillion-dollar lobbying contract in late 2001 but that the proposal was "never seriously considered" by the Sudanese. He declined to elaborate.
The story Ahmed and a former Abramoff associate tell about the solicitation of Sudan, which the U.S. had sanctioned for its record on terrorism and rights violations, is a striking example of the kind of aggressive machinations of Abramoff as spelled out in the criminal cases against him. The super-lobbyist made tens of millions of dollars representing -- and sometimes defrauding -- corporations, foreign clients and American Indian gambling interests.
A spokesman for Abramoff, Andrew Blum, confirmed that a conversation took place between Abramoff and the ambassador but said Abramoff never sought a contract and rejected working for the Sudanese because of that country's human rights record.
The ambassador and the former associate of Abramoff dispute Blum's account. The former associate said the ex-lobbyist discussed the possible contract while sitting with the ambassador in Abramoff's skybox at Washington's Fed-Ex field during a Redskin football game in late 2001.
The former associate, who did not want to be named out of fear it might damage future business opportunities, said that Abramoff proposed a $16- to $18-million contract -- "a staggering sum" for the destitute nation -- but one that the lobbyist considered reasonable because international disapproval was so costly to Sudan's economy.
For more than two decades, a civil war divided Sudan's Arab-Muslim government in the north and the mainly Christian and animist south.
Abramoff offers a different account of events. Blum, his spokesman said the lobbyist did not suggest any sums to the Sudanese but rather "objected in explicit terms to Sudan's treatment of Christians." He said Abramoff remembered the encounter "because he felt it was deeply embarrassing to the ambassador at the time."
Blum said any specifics, such as fees and contacts, were discussed only by the former associate, not by Abramoff.
"Mr. Abramoff never contemplated nor did he undertake this representation," Blum said.
The reported proposal to Sudan seems to fit Abramoff's willingness as a lobbyist to take on most any client who would pay the bills. He collected a $1.2-million fee from the Malaysian government and boasted of arranging a 2002 meeting with President Bush for that country's president, who was known for making derogatory comments about Jews.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiring to bribe public officials. He was sentenced in federal court in Florida last week to 5 years and 10 months in prison in connection with a casino boat venture.
To his clients, Abramoff offered connections to his well-placed contacts in the Bush administration, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, especially among Republicans.
In the case of Sudan, the former associate said Abramoff invoked his connections to Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who is running for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Reed had worked with Abramoff and other now-powerful conservatives decades earlier in the College Republicans organization.
In a statement, Reed's spokeswoman, Lisa Baron, said, "Under no circumstances would he have worked on behalf of the Sudan and he has never done so."
For years, Sudan has been a galvanizing issue for Christian conservatives, including the Christian Coalition. They aggressively lobbied both the Clinton and Bush administrations to side with Christians and other rebels in southern Sudan.
In January 2005, the two sides signed a peace agreement that finally ended the long civil war, in which both sides committed atrocities. The conflict left 1.5 million people dead and 4 million displaced, and left the economy in tatters. In 2003, a separate conflict broke out in the western region of Darfur, leaving more than 180,000 dead and displacing more than 2 million people. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide.
Abramoff's contact with the Sudanese was reported briefly by the National Journal in 2004.
According to the lobbyist's former associate, Abramoff sat with the ambassador in the skybox and described an elaborate and costly plan to blunt the effect of pressure from Christian groups with money and travel, two of the methods Abramoff frequently deployed in his Washington lobbying campaigns.