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UNPAID BILLS
Bush Florida 2000 recount committee still owes lobbyist's former firm $314k

White House directs queries to RNC

By John Byrne | RAW STORY Editor

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

If so, the photograph taken of President George W. Bush and embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was priceless—the windswept DeLay strutting down the tarmac beside the president, two Republican leaders rankled by political setbacks joined at the hip.

There’s a backstory that lurks behind Bush’s decision to stand by DeLay. It involves Greenberg Traurig, the firm that employed the powerful lobbyist who paid for palatial DeLay junkets, and Abramoff staffers, who were footsoldiers in the Florida recount. Greenberg Traurig has yet to receive more than $314,000 in legal fees charged to a Bush committee during the 2000 Florida recount, RAW STORY can confirm.

As a corporation, Greenberg’s unpaid tab represents a massive in-kind campaign contribution, far larger than anything that went unreported by DeLay. But it appears to be legal: corporations are allowed to donate any amount to the nebulous type of committee employed during the recount. It would, however, violate the committee's self-imposed $5,000 contribution limit from individual donors.

Bush’s recount committee doled out some $8 million, much of it to Hill staffers who made the jaunt to the Florida battlefield. But they couldn’t find the money for their telegenic counsel.

Greenberg’s leadership has apparently declined to press the issue. Jill Perry, Greenberg’s director of marketing and public affairs, declined to comment.

A White House official, who declined to be named, referred questions to the Republican National Committee.

“These are campaign issues,” the official said. “We work on doing the people’s business. The RNC handles all campaign-related [expenses].”

“We are funded through taxpayer funds, so we don’t deal with any campaign related issues,” the official added.

The RNC did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Greenberg had 39 lawyers and 13 paralegals on the ground. Tallahassee partner Barry Richard, a Democrat, was their leading man—a snow-haired, tireless attorney who impaled Gore witnesses. After Newsweek ran a piece in 2001 detailing the $800,000 unpaid tab, the Bush team ponied up another $374,000.

A Newsweek piece in 2001 quipped: “Whether Richard and company collect or not, that $800,000 could end up being a smart investment.”

Newsweek said Richard was not among the lawyers at the firm griping over not being paid. He did not return a call for comment placed Thursday.

Steven Weiss, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said the unpaid tab raises questions, though it isn’t surprising.

“To me it sounds emblematic of the way Washington works,” Weiss said. “If you’re trying to buy influence, you’re probably not going to raise a stink about an outstanding bill.”

“It certainly creates an appearance problem,” he added. “One would have to ask: Is the Bush Administration going to be more lenient on a firm that appears to have forgiven a $300,000 bill? The same question can be raised with regard to any company that’s responsible for any kind of campaign contributions.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [Greenberg] said, don’t worry about it, and in return hope for an even better relationship with the Administration than it already has,” he remarked.

After the recount, Bush’s team complained Greenberg charged exorbitant fees.

"What you've got here is a bunch of rich lawyers bellyaching," one former Bush official told Newsweek. "Yet these guys got huge in-kind contributions to their reputations out of this."

Abramoff partners bragged of recount role

Indeed, some members of the firm mention their roles in the recount in their biographies to this day. In a release last year, Greenberg dubbed themselves “the international law firm that successfully represented President George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election litigation.”

Four of Abramoff’s colleagues—all of whom have left Greenberg in the wake of investigations surrounding Abramoff’s activities—were foot soldiers in the Florida recount. Two of them bragged of their recount work on their official online Greenberg biographies, which have since been removed.

Shawn Vasell noted that he was a “team leader” in Broward and Duval counties in his bio; Duane Gibson was photographed in the acclaimed “Brooks Brothers riot” of Republican operatives outside the Miami-Dade County polling headquarters; Todd Boulanger boasted of being on the Broward and Duval recount team in his profile. Also on the ground was former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy.

Boulanger drafted a letter DeLay signed urging the Interior Department to favor Abramoff’s client in June 2003—a letter cosigned by the House Republican leadership, including Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO).

Boulanger married Blunt’s press secretary earlier this year.

Bush’s decision to employ Greenberg took flak from some Democrats at the time. Shortly before the case came before the Supreme Court, the firm announced the hire of John Scalia, son of Justice Antonin Scalia. Gore’s attorneys and ethics experts didn’t press the issue at the time, saying John Scalia wasn’t directly connected to the case.

The formal announcement of Scalia’s hire came on Jan. 9, 2001, after the court had ruled. Abramoff’s hire was announced two days before—along with the former DeLay deputy Rudy, Vasell, and Boulanger.

Abramoff hired in strategy to increase receipts

Upon Abramoff’s enlistment in 2001, Greenberg’s government affairs chairman said he planned to double the firm’s lobbying receipts, seeking to bring lobbying revenues to more than $9 million. In the same article, published in Influence and highlighted on Abramoff’s biography on the Greenberg website (which has been taken down), a lawyer familiar with the firm said the culture sought out aggressive talent.

"It’s a very entrepreneurial place," one lawyer familiar with the firm told Influence. "They do not have their noses in the air, so to speak. They don’t say ‘We don’t like this client’ or ‘We’re afraid of the image it may create.’"

With Abramoff, Greenberg Traurig did even better than they had hoped. The firm’s lobbying receipts leapt fourfold, from $3 million in 2000, to $16 million in 2001. At the peak in 2003, the firm grossed $26 million on lobbying alone, which plummeted to $6 million in 2004, the year of Abramoff’s departure.

The scandal hounding Abramoff isn’t the first fracas the firm has faced. In 1998, the Federal Election Commission levied a $77,000 fine against Greenberg for soliciting illegal contributions from a German real estate developer while having knowledge of his status as a foreign national.

The fine given developer Thomas Kramer, $323,000, was the largest of its kind ever assessed by the FEC. The Greenberg staffers sanctioned for the solicitations were intimately connected with the Democratic National Committee, one of them a close political associate of Al Gore.

Abramoff is currently being investigated by Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. In a prepared statement, Greenberg’s Perry wrote in an email his style was “antithetical” to the firm’s practices.

"Greenberg Traurig accepted Jack Abramoff's resignation from the firm, effective March 2, 2004, after Mr. Abramoff disclosed to the firm personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable to the firm and antithetical to the way we do business,” Perry asserted. “In addition, conduct and comments by Mr. Abramoff which have come to light since he left Greenberg Traurig are contrary to our firm's values and culture.”

“We are conducting a comprehensive internal investigation of these matters and are cooperating with all government investigations," she added.

Pressed for more, Perry said the firm was constrained from commenting because of ongoing investigations.

Abramoff relationship with Bush

Bush has largely ducked the scandals surrounding Abramoff, but he was certainly a beneficiary of the lobbyist’s fundraising: Abramoff was a Bush Pioneer, raising more than $120,000 for the 2004 presidential campaign.

He had the largest lobbyist accounts of any Pioneer, at $26 million.

In his Greenberg Traurig biography, which has since been stripped, the firm wrote, “Jack is directly involved in the Republican party and conservative movement leadership structures and is one of the leading fund raisers for the party and its congressional candidates.”

Those close to Abramoff—including his partner Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay press secretary who is also being investigated for lobbying deals—bragged about their access to the president.

"Jack has a relationship with the President," Scanlon told the New Times Broward-Palm Beach in February 2001. "He doesn't have a bat phone or anything, but if he wanted an appointment, he would have one."

Abramoff was a member of the Republican National Committee executive body from 1981-1985. The tribal lobbyist advised the Interior Department—which oversees Indian affairs—during the Bush transition in 2001. His tribal clients gave more than $300,000 to a conservative environmental group founded by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.

A lawyer for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, one of the clients allegedly bilked by Abramoff, told Newsweek Monday that tribal leaders had "three or four" meetings at the White House—including one with Bush and a second with Rove—after making a $25,000 donation to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform at Abramoff's request. Norquist’s group later confirmed that he had arranged White House meetings for tribal leaders.

Another tribe, the Louisiana Coushattas paid Greenberg Traurig $1.76 million in the latter half of 2001. According to the New York Times, a month after Greenberg received the payment, the Bush White House blocked a rival tribe's attempt to construct a gaming facility near the Coushatta casino.

A Coushatta official told the Times he thought the administration’s decision was a direct result of Abramoff’s fees.

A third tribe, Abramoff’s former client the Mississippi Choctaws, gave $25,000 five days after the inauguration to the Bush inaugural committee.

Abramoff’s spokesman did not return an email seeking comment Thursday.

A criminal investigation into Abramoff’s affairs is ongoing, and indications suggest queries are heating up. Norquist and Ralph Reed were recently subpoenaed by Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The paper trail, many believe, is in email messages retained by Abramoff and his former firm. Greenberg Traurig has provided a spate of emails to McCain.

Through it all, Greenberg has effectively flown below the radar. A 5,278-word profile in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine failed to name Abramoff’s former employer once. But the fallout for the firm has been sizable: revenue has halved, and Abramoff’s exit was followed by an exodus of other lobbyists.

Information about Abramoff’s relationships with the Interior Department and members of Congress continues to trickle out from various sources, primarily to the Washington Post.

Both McCain and the Bush Justice Department are keeping a low profile; each is treading carefully what could be a potential political minefield.

Muriel Kane and Brad Friedman, of BradBlog.com, contributed research for this piece.

Clarification: The original version of this article used the figure $320,000. To ensure the number was sound, Raw Story reduced the number to $314,000, the minimum Greenberg Traurig could be owed if their entire legal bill was $800,000. Some believe the total outstanding bill is actually greater than $400,000.

Article originally published May 5, 2005.

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