Inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway, the scandal over super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is the biggest one going-and Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has a ringside seat.
Yet in three public hearings on the matter in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, transcripts show Smith hasn't uttered a single word.
"He's been kind of quiet," says Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group following the Abramoff hearings. "That's interesting."
Why so mum? Perhaps because the issues raised by Abramoff-who was arrested by the FBI last week-hit a little too close to home.
Smith and Abramoff aren't strangers. The senator has held fundraisers at a D.C. restaurant that Abramoff owned until recently, and he has taken thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Abramoff and his tribal clients.
For years, Abramoff, at first with Seattle-based law firm Preston Gates and later with a smaller firm, was a top D.C. lobbyist, whose clients included several Indian tribes. Evidence has come out in the past year that Abramoff privately referred to his Indian clients as "monkeys" and may have defrauded them.
The U.S. Department of Justice last month charged Abramoff with fraud in an unrelated Florida real-estate deal. But for political buffs, the more interesting part of the continuing federal probe is revelations that "Team Abramoff" used favors-such as trips funded by nonprofit front groups-to, as one Abramoff email puts it, "reward" congressmen and their staff for special treatment. In addition to sitting on the committee looking at tribal shenanigans, Smith also sits on the Finance Committee, now looking at bogus nonprofits, another piece of the Abramoff scandal.
Asked to point to any public statement by Smith about the Abramoff affair, Smith spokesman Chris Matthews cannot. But Matthews does say his boss voted last year to grant subpoena power to the investigation.
"That's the clearest indication of how he feels," says Matthews. (Smith's staff says the senator was too busy to discuss Abramoff with WW personally.) Matthews adds that Smith would say more, "but this is something that's in progress right now."
So far, the scandal has not touched Smith. But the extent to which Smith has been a player in the issues raised by Abramoff does, at the very least, give insight into some of D.C.'s unseemly secrets-which can be as small as the way Abramoff comped friendly lawmakers at his D.C. restaurant, Signatures.
Matthews says Smith has held more than one fundraiser at Signatures-but says it has nothing to do with Abramoff. "That's just a matter of convenience," Matthews says. "It's convenient to the Hill, and it has good meeting rooms." He says that while his boss may have been acquainted with Abramoff, the two did not have a close relationship. "You meet people in passing all the time, but they've never, like, met, sat down in an office and discussed an issue or anything like that."
But Abramoff and his tribal clients have contributed to Smith, before and after Smith was named to the Indian Affairs Committee in January 2003.
Between May 2001 and May 2002, Abramoff wrote three $1,000 checks to Smith, followed by a $2,000 check in June 2002 from one of his main clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws. In late October 2002, right before Smith's reelection, while he enjoyed a large lead in the polls over Democrat Bill Bradbury, the senator accepted three more checks totaling $4,000, two from the Mississippi tribe and one from another Abramoff client, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in California. Since the election, Smith has received two additional checks from Abramoff's Indian clients, totaling $6,000.
"It's clear that Abramoff gave his tribal clients highly specific instructions about how to distribute their political dollars, and that he watched over these donations carefully," wrote Michael Crowley, who covers the Abramoff scandal for The New Republic magazine.
Smith's total take of $15,000 is not huge for Abramoff, whose donations to Indian Affairs committee members usually ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 each to more than $100,000 for his closest ally, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana. Nor is it huge for Smith, who collected almost $8 million for his 2002 run. How much access Abramoff received in exchange is unclear. Matthews says Smith's staff worked with Abramoff on only one piece of legislation, giving tax breaks for tribal housing. Another legislative item Smith lobbied for, concerning the Celilo Village in the Columbia Gorge, appeared in legislation benefiting the Mississippi Band of Choctaws and two other Abramoff clients-but Matthews says there's no link.
Smith's other main committee, Finance, has held one hearing on the other big aspect of the Abramoff scandal, influence peddling and paid trips for congressmen and their staff. For instance, Abramoff operated a nonprofit that allowed his lobbying clients to fund trips using money that was tax-deductible and did not have to be disclosed publicly. Though such trips are usually rationalized as educational, it's clear that they can serve a double purpose. In one email released in June, Abramoff's then-second-in-command, Tony Rudy, asks whether they can bill a client $10,000 for a hunting trip to "reward" a senator's staff. Smith and his staff have not received any trips linked to Abramoff. But earlier this year, it did come out that Smith had taken a trip to an Irish castle in 2003 funded through an "educational" nonprofit and organized by lobbyist Richard Kessler. Records show the nonprofit's contribution to education amounts to one $10,000 scholarship each year, versus $1.3 million spent on congressional travel and other favors for members of Conress. Where the money originated remains a secret, but it's a safe bet the checks for the trip were written by Kessler's pharmaceutical-industry clients, who wanted the senator's vote on Medicare prescription reform.
Smith's staff has also accepted trips from other groups. In March 2005, two of his staff spent a weekend in France on "fact-finding" trips costing more than $20,000 combined, one funded by a group called the "European Institute" and the other by the Nuclear Energy Institute industry lobby (Smith also sits on the Energy Committee). France stands out as a curious destination, considering Smith attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last year for "looking French." More recently, on Memorial Day, a Smith staffer received an $8,000 trip to Paris, Prague and London from an anti-tax group called the Tax Foundation.
For Ruskin, the congressional watchdog, these trips and the coziness they engender are part of the problem symbolized by Abramoff, a topic on which he says Smith has been "AWOL" despite his seat on the two committees now investigating.
Ruskin calls it Congress' corruption problem, and he says the real scandal is that even in the wake of Abramoff, people such as Smith are silent. "He's part of it, and he doesn't have the courage to stand up to do anything about it," says Ruskin.
Asked whether the Abramoff scandal had prompted Smith to think any congressional ethics rules on trips, contributions and favors needed tightening, Smith's spokesman said no. "He strongly supports the disclosure of these trips and everything," Matthews says. "It's always in the public eye, and it's easy to look up. So people have full access to it."