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Beyond Abramoff: Gambling lobbyist joined with anti-gambling congressman, derailed gambling bills

John Byrne

Ex-lobbyist now oversees $300 billion in federal spending

A friend and former colleague of fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff who rose swiftly through the ranks of the conservative establishment quietly advanced the interests of former clients under the cloak of a vocally anti-gambling Utah congressman, RAW STORY has found.

David Safavian, appointed in 2004 by President Bush to oversee $300 billion of annual federal purchasing as director of the Office of Management and Budget, has largely flown below the radar in his relationship to a massive lobbying scandal surrounding a lobbyist who siphoned millions of dollars from Indian tribes and gambling interests into conservative coffers.

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That lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has long Safavian ties. Abramoff schooled Safavian at Preston, Gates & Ellis where they jointly represented a broad swath of gambling interests–work now being probed by federal investigators.

Relevant Safavian clients included: Inland Entertainment Co, Interactive Gaming Council, Interactive Services Association, CDM Fantasy Soirts, National Indian Gaming Association, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Napster, First Amendment Coalition for Expression
From there, Safavian went on to found lobby shop Janus Merritt with Abramoff’s college roommate and conservative maverick Grover Norquist. At Janus, he represented an array of Internet gambling firms, many of whom Abramoff would later serve. During his career as a lobbyist, Safavian handled more than $2.5 million in gambling accounts.

But while Abramoff went on to become D.C.’s largest lobbyist, Safavian took a different route: he quit the firm he founded to become chief of staff to Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT).

Cannon, 58, was elected in 1996. The bespectacled Mormon was known for advocacy of looser immigration laws, and his no-nonsense anti-gambling stance. Gambling, he contended, was a “pernicious vice.”

But that didn’t stop him from taking money from gambling lobbyists: Safavian and two other members of his firm gave Cannon a total of $2,750 in the 2000 cycle.

Safavian set to work immediately upon joining Cannon’s staff in 2001. He set up a soft-money fund for the congressman, listing his Janus email address as the contact: merrittdc@aol.com. The address remained on IRS filings while Safavian served as the congressman’s chief of staff, raising questions of who the lobbyist was actually working for.

Indeed, Safavian raised these very questions himself in a recent interview with the Federal Times Register: “In Congressman [Chris] Cannon’s office, I was a chief of staff,” he remarked. “I was a lobbyist. Very much behind the scenes.”

Janus remained on Cannon’s books, too. Two months after hiring Safavian, the Utah Republican dished out $7,500 to the firm, according to campaign finance reports. Janus received another hefty $5,960 the following year.

Safavian partnered with Cannon to aid former clients. In October 2001, Cannon received a $2,000 donation from the California-based Viejas Tribal Government. In December of the following year, he cashed a check for another two grand.

Though pennies in the Washington lobbying landscape, the donations bought face time in Congress. Cannon took the tribe’s side during a hearing over the location of a casino—for a tribe that wasn’t even in his state.

The Viejas kicked in another $2,000 in 2004.

The Viejas weren’t the only donors who got face time from the Utah congressman.

Executives for the online filesharing service, Napster also former Safavian clients, had their photographs taken with the congressman—along with Safavian—in 2001.

But Napster got more: In August, 2001, Cannon introduced the "Music Online Competition Act,” which sought to ease laws that stifled the online music business.

“Because the recording industry and music publishers clung to the current music licensing system and refused to provide content online that consumers demanded, entities like Napster stepped into the void,” Cannon said at the time. “Napster has faced a number of other problems, but I am pleased to hear of the successful beta test of the Napster subscription service.”

In his subsequent campaign cycles, Cannon pocketed $3,000 from Napster’s General Counsel, and $500 from Napster’s Chief Technology Officer and co-founder Shawn Fanning. Fanning was front and center in the 2001 photograph with Safavian.

Neither Cannon or Safavian returned repeated RAW STORY calls or emails for comment.

Safavian took his gambling credentials seriously. In correspondence with his client the Fantasy Sports Trade Association in 2000, he said he and his Janus compatriots “camped out” at the Capitol—and at the White House—burning the midnight oil courting negotiators.

“For all intents and purposes, this was the last train leaving the station. There are no other legislative vehicles left to attach Internet gambling legislation,” he wrote. “So this was the game.”

“Our entire team has been essentially camped out on Capitol Hill and at the White House for the past two weeks,” he added, “urging the negotiators to reject any Internet gambling rider that might come up.”

Safavian was an aggressive player online, too, spearheading a campaign called “Log on 4 choice” that allowed visitors to contact Congress and “urge them to preserve the freedom of the Internet, and your rights to gamble online.”

Thus, his decision to become chief of staff to a vocally anti-gambling Utah congressman appears something of a career anomaly. But taken in the larger pattern of events to come, the unexpected alliance was a coup for online gambling firms that put a lobbyist on the “inside” of the gambling debate.

As Cannon’s chief of staff and top legislative aide Safavian set the stage for their ultimate victory: the death of two bills that would have likely cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

THE 'POISON PILL'

On May 14, 2002, Congressman Cannon introduced an amendment to an anti-gambling bill, a move which ultimately resulted in the measure being shelved. Two days later, Safavian was appointed chief of staff to the General Services Administration.

Ostensibly, Cannon’s amendment toughened the bill by removing exemptions for horse and dog betting. But in reality it was a torpedo: many House members represented areas with extensive horse-betting, including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL). If the bill reached the floor, it would probably die.

Cannon’s move stripped compromises out of the bill that its author had carefully crafted for years.

A month later, Cannon’s amendment was accepted.

"I don't want to create dampers or difficulties for Internet commerce," Cannon told reporters after the vote.

The bill—and a competing bill--failed as the summer waned. Though Safavian had departed, there’s little question he had a hand in crafting the amendment: he told his alumnae magazine he managed the “minutiae of the legislative process,” and he’d earlier told the Register he acted as a “lobbyist” in his position as chief of staff.

That August, Abramoff’s team and his ex-lieutenants celebrated. They’d thwarted yet another anti-gambling bill—the first was smothered in 2000—and they alighted on a chartered jet to the famed St. Andrew’s golfing range in Scotland.

Among those who boarded the plane were: Abramoff, House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed who’d helped Abramoff subversively lobby against competing casinos in the South, and Safavian.

Safavian told the Washington Post he’d paid back $3,100 for his expenses, saying the trip was "primarily for golfing," and "had no business orientation to it."

It later emerged the trip had been largely underwritten by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The Choctaws were an Abramoff client—and a former client of Safavian’s.

The Choctaws cut two thousand-dollar checks to Cannon’s campaign in the months before he introduced the amendment, which one Republican would later dub a “poison pill.”

The 2000 version of Internet gambling legislation died a month after a similar British Abramoff junket that included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).

Some critics of the Internet gambling bill say the bill would have expanded Internet gambling, by providing new venues to gamble from home. As such, one explanation for Cannon’s “poison pill” was that the Mormon congressman simply wanted to quash a bill that would have broadened gambling as a whole.

Either way, the move was a boon for online gambling interests.

Millions of people play online poker without incident in the United States. However, the game is still a gray area in Congress. So far, anti-gambling congressmen have made it illegal for people to gamble on US poker sites yet they can still play at offshore rooms. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) is a huge proponent of online poker, but he’ll have to battle fellow Rep. Spencer Bachus and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley to legalize the game.

CANNON LEFT CRIMINAL SANCTIONS OUT OF BILL

Cannon was a keystone in attempts to stonewall anti-gambling legislation. In order to bypass Cannon’s amendment, Internet gambling foes had to propose another bill—but without criminal sanctions. This kept the bill from the Judiciary Committee, where Cannon kept throwing in a wrench.

In 2003, an Internet gambling bill without criminal sanctions passed the House. A companion bill died in the Senate. Internet gambling remains an unpoliced, multi-billion dollar business.

Along with the Viejas and the Choctaws, Cannon also enjoyed donations from various other Abramoff clients in the run-up to the 2002 and 2003 bills, including the Agua Caliente tribe in California; the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of Michigan and the Tigua Indian Reservation.

Cannon also got checks from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Since the bills were snuffed, Cannon received additional money from three Abramoff-registered tribes.

An article in 2003 said Cannon had received $33,850 in contributions since 2001 from tribes, gambling lobbyists and other opponents of the gambling legislation.

Originally published on Thursday September 1, 2005.

 


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