WASHINGTON — In 2002, the nation's capital was abuzz with March Madness as it prepared to host the NCAA basketball tournament's first- and second-round regional games. For highflying lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it was a chance to do what he did best -- cozy up to powerful politicians.
So when he bumped into Karl Rove, the White House political advisor, Abramoff wasted no time. He invited Rove to sit in the private box of MCI Center owner Abe Pollin. The lobbyist followed up with an e-mail to Susan Ralston, his onetime aide who had gone to the White House as Rove's assistant, telling her that her boss was "really jazzed" about the idea.
"Karl is interested in Fri. and Sun.," Ralston messaged back. "3 tickets for his family?"
"Done," Abramoff replied.
The episode -- reflecting the modus operandi of the lobbyist whose dealings have cast a shadow over some of Washington's most powerful figures -- is captured in a congressional report to be released today. The report documents hundreds of direct contacts between the White House and the now-disgraced Abramoff and his colleagues, including 82 with Rove's office; nine of those were with President Bush's chief strategist himself.
Capping a months-long investigation by the Republican-controlled House Government Reform Committee, the report said its findings provided "an unusually detailed glimpse into a sordid subculture of fraud and attempted influence peddling."
Examining 14,000 pages of e-mails and other documents obtained from Abramoff's law firm, investigators found that between January 2001 and March 2004, the lobbyist and his associates had more than 400 contacts with White House officials. Many came in official meetings, and others involved pricey restaurants and sporting events such as the NCAA basketball playoffs.
In one instance, the report suggests, Abramoff's team secured $16.3 million in public money for a key client -- the Choctaw Indian tribe -- after a meeting with then-White House political director Ken Mehlman. The Department of Justice was resisting release of the funds, which were intended to finance a new jail for the tribe. But Abramoff partner Tony Rudy recounted in e-mails that he reminded Mehlman during their meeting of the Choctaws' contributions to Republicans.
"Mehlman said he would take care of this," Rudy wrote. "He's a rock star."
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to federal charges as part of an ongoing congressional bribery investigation that has prompted Democrats to accuse the Republican Party of fostering a "culture of corruption" in Washington. A Senate subcommittee concluded that Abramoff fleeced Indian tribes out of millions of dollars in fees that he split with one of his associates.
Rudy, a onetime aide to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), has pleaded guilty to conspiracy. He admitted accepting favors, cash and other gifts while working in DeLay's House leadership office and after leaving to become a lobbyist.
Bush and White House aides have said they had little if any meaningful contact with Abramoff.
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said Thursday that the new report merely confirmed "what we already knew, that [Abramoff] had a penchant for exaggeration and for charging his clients for minor contacts with government officials."
A spokeswoman for Mehlman -- now chairman of the Republican National Committee -- said it would not have been unusual for him, while serving as White House political director, to "be in contact with supporters who had interest in administration policy."
The House committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, said Thursday that the report portrays a "much closer relationship between Mr. Abramoff and White House officials than the White House has previously acknowledged."
"The documents reviewed by the committee, if accurate, contain evidence that White House officials at the most senior levels of government repeatedly took actions requested by Mr. Abramoff," Waxman said. "And they raise serious questions about the legality and ethics of the actions of multiple White House officials."
The committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, said Thursday that the report raised questions about activities in the White House -- rare criticism from a member of the GOP leadership.
A news release from Davis' office said the 95-page report revealed only "scant and circumstantial evidence that Abramoff's encounters and entreaties had a dispositive impact on administration policy or personnel decisions." But it singled out Ralston -- Rove's assistant and Abramoff's former employee -- who was lobbied 69 times, the most contacts with any individual named in the report. She also received numerous tickets to concerts and sporting events.
"Her role in brokering requests to Rove from her former boss raises questions ... about some of her activities," the release said.