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Abramoff, Scanlon and the Influence of Money

The investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has taken many twists and turns. As investigators gauge the extent of Abramoff's influence with lawmakers of both parties, an associate of Abramoff's has pled guilty to conspiracy. Reporter Philip Shenon has been covering the case for The New York Times.


Other segments from the episode on November 30, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 30, 2005: Interview with Philip Shenon; Review of the music album "The John Simon's album."



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Livingston, NJ 07039.


SHOW: Fresh Air

DATE: November 30, 2005


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We admit we've been having trouble keeping up with the Washington
influence-peddling scandals. The ongoing investigation into the lobbying
activities of Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon is heading in so
many different directions and involves so many other people it's hard to keep
track of. But this story is fascinating on purely dramatic levels, and, more
important, it reveals some of the seamier side of today's politics. We asked
Philip Shenon to map out the story of the Abramoff-Scanlon investigation.
Shenon is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering
the Abramoff-Scanlon story and the investigations into former House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay. Scanlon is a former aide to DeLay.

Philip Shenon, before we get into all, or at least some, of the details in
these various, you know, lobbying investigations, why is this larger story
important? I mean, it takes some effort to follow these stories. Why is it
worth it?

Mr. PHILIP SHENON (The New York Times): It's worth it because, you know, it's
been a concern for a very long time that money buys too much access in
Washington, that lobbyists have too much power, that the revolving door between
Capitol Hill and the lobbying community is spinning much too fast and it
involves much too much money. And there are many people who would tell you
that the saga of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon tells you that things are
out of control, that money is having too much influence on public policy, that
members of Congress are offering themselves up to do favors for lobbyists in
exchange for gifts that may well constitute bribery, that something needs to be
done. And I think people are talking seriously now about new legislation that
will place much tighter restrictions on what lobbyists can do and what
Congressmen and other public officials can accept.

GROSS: Last week there was, what appears to be, a very big breakthrough in the
investigation into the Abramoff-Scanlon story. Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty
to conspiracy to bribe public officials and defraud his Indian tribal clients
and he said that he would cooperate with the investigators. Exactly what did
he plead guilty to doing?

Mr. SHENON: He pleaded guilty to a conspiracy with someone identified as
Lobbyist A--Lobbyist A, we know now, is Jack Abramoff--to bribe members of
Congress by giving them lots of gifts, jetting them around the world on exotic
travel, sending campaign contributions into their campaign offices in exchange
for specific acts on Capitol Hill. That's something much more than a gift.
That is bribery.

GROSS: So before we get any deeper into what Michael Scanlon did, let's just
talk briefly about who he is and how connected he is in Washington. How
connected is he to Washington?

Mr. SHENON: Well, he's...

GROSS: What is his place in the power structure?

Mr. SHENON: He's not a particularly well-known figure. He just happens to be
well-known to a handful of folks who are in power on Capitol Hill. He's a
reasonably young man, in his mid-thirties. He's a Republican operative
of--with some history here. He worked as the press secretary to Congressman
Tom DeLay for a period of time. He was quite close to DeLay. He left that
position several years ago and decided to enter the world of lobbying and
public relations where he hooked up with Jack Abramoff, who is really the focus
of all of these investigations.

GROSS: And Scanlon is a very wealthy man.

Mr. SHENON: He is apparently fabulously wealthy. In fact, he was required
under this plea agreement to give up $19 million, but it's not at all clear
that that is the--that that will leave him broke at the end of this.

GROSS: OK, so now he's promised to cooperate with prosecutors and The
Washington Post in an editorial said that he may now be the most dangerous man
in Washington. What makes him so dangerous?

Mr. SHENON: Well, he knows the inner workings of the Abramoff lobbying
operation and he may well be able to finger individual congressmen for having
taken gifts in return for specific acts. He may be able to identify members of
Congress who were bribed.

GROSS: Let's get to Jack Abramoff. What's his position in Washington politics?

Mr. SHENON: Well, he--Jack Abramoff is likely to be remembered as the man
behind the biggest influence-peddling scandal that Washington has seen in a
generation. You may have to go back even further than that to find a good

He was the lobbyist's lobbyist. He knew where the levers of power were on
Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. He knew how to pull them and he got
what he wanted on Capitol Hill and elsewhere largely by wining and dining
members of Congress, by jetting them all around the world on these lavish trips
nominally for business and in exchange for that Abramoff got these jaw-dropping
lobbying fees. We know that he and Scanlon, his junior partner, got something
more than $80 million during a three-year period, 2001 to 2004, from just
handful of Indian tribes in their gambling operations. He, you know, this
is--if you want to know about this sort of unseemly, unholy alliance between
money and politics, Jack Abramoff is likely to be a poster boy for that.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about this relationship that they had with
Indian tribes who owned or wanted to own gambling casinos. What was the
arrangement that Abramoff had with these Indian tribes?

Mr. SHENON: Abramoff, in the mid 1990s, saw a real opportunity to start
representing the interests of Indian tribes and their casinos all around the
country because they are just money machines producing billions of dollars in
revenue each year. And he would pitch himself to Indian tribes as the man who
could make things happen in Washington or elsewhere--in state capitals,
wherever the Indian tribes needed friends. Often the lobbying efforts that
Abramoff oversaw were efforts to prevent a rival casino from opening as opposed
to getting a casino open--a particular casino open. And he worked out a fee
arrangement in which he would take some portion of the money but the bulk of it
would go to what was described as a public relations operation run by Michael
Scanlon. And of the, you know, $80 million that Abramoff and Scanlon took in
lobbying fees, most of that money, $60 million I think, went to Scanlon. And
the reason for that, I think people suspect, is because lobbying has to be
declared pub--it has to be declared in financial records to the federal
government. Public relations doesn't have to be declared. It can be done off
the books essentially.

GROSS: So Scanlon was officially running a public relations organization as
opposed to a lobbying organization?

Mr. SHENON: Exactly.

GROSS: Now you have said that part of the problem with this casino scheme is
that the Indian tribes weren't getting what they paid for. But, on the other
hand, it sounds like Abramoff and Scanlon got lawmakers--you know,
congressmen--to do favors for the tribes in return for, you know, free travel
or payments to their campaigns. So, in that sense, I mean, it sounds like the
tribes got something.

Mr. SHENON: Essentially they got what they paid for.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SHENON: Yeah, no, I think we can draw a distinction. In some cases,
certainly early on in Abramoff's career the Indian tribes did get what they
wanted. In fact, my own newspaper did a story back in early 2002 on the front
page about this incredible lobbyist called--named Jack Abramoff who was reaping
these extraordinary lobbying fees from Indian tribes and the story quoted many
of the Indian tribe leaders as saying what a terrific lobbyist Jack Abramoff
was and how he was able to get for them exactly what they wanted.

I think more recently the allegation is made that Abramoff and Scanlon, yes, on
occasion could get things done, could get access to members of Congress, but,
in the end, simply pocketed most of the fees they were given.

GROSS: So who is now investigating this Indian casino operation that Scanlon
and Abramoff ran?

Mr. SHENON: Well, the principal investigation and the one that's caused so much
alarm on Capitol Hill is one that is being overseen by the Justice Department
that also involves the Treasury Department, the IRS, the Interior Department, a
host of others--a task force that includes a host of other federal agencies.
And they've been running a grand jury in Washington for something more than a
year and a half. And that is the grand jury that had the--whose investigation
resulted in the plea bargain with Scanlon last week.

There are other investigations. There's been an investigation on Capitol Hill
run by Senator McCain of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that has brought
to light some of the worst abuses that have been associated with Abramoff and
Scanlon, a series of high-profile public hearings over the last year. And, you
know, there are rumblings about other sorts of investigations being overseen by
state prosecutors around the country.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter for The New York
Times. He's covering the investigation into lobbyists Jack Abramoff and
Michael Scanlon. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Shenon and he is an
investigative reporter for The New York Times and for the past year he's been
covering various lobbying scandals, including the one involving Jack Abramoff
and including investigations into Tom DeLay.

One person under scrutiny now in this larger investigation of conspiracy to
defraud Indian casinos is Ralph Reed. And before we get specifically to what
he's being scrutinized for, he's had a long relationship with Jack Abramoff.
How far do they go back?

Mr. SHENON: Oh, they go back to the early 1980s. Abramoff made his name early
on in the Republican Party when he was the chairman of the College Republicans,
which he made into a pretty potent force during the presidency of Ronald
Reagan. And among the people he worked with most closely was a young man out
of Georgia by the name of Ralph Reed. And the two men struck up an easy
friendship. Reed apparently used to sleep on Abramoff's couch in Washington.
Reed introduced Abramoff to the woman who would later become his wife. The two
men had been very close friends for many years.

After Reed left the Christian Coalition, he went back home to Georgia and
opened up a lobbying shop and started doing business with Abramoff's lobbying
shop. Abramoff's interest was in protecting the interests of his Indian tribe
clients and their casino operations and Reed was involved because he would
oversee part of the grassroots campaign that would protect the interests of
some of those Indian tribes. In other words, if a tribe wanted to prevent a
rival tribe from opening a casino, Abramoff would work with Reed to organize
a--what was described as a grassroots operation to block all new casinos in
that state or that region.

Reed has--you know, Reed obviously is a man who proclaims his opposition to
gambling and insists that he had no real understanding that the money that was
flowing to him from Abramoff was coming from Indian tribe gambling operations,
but some critics of Reed find that a little hard to believe especially
since--you know, given his long ties to Abramoff and the fact that Abramoff was
known in Washington as Casino Jack because most of his business was with Indian
tribes and their casinos.

GROSS: Do the critics who are saying that money from the casinos was indirectly
funnelled to Ralph Reed use as an example this, that Jack Abramoff used the
group Americans for Tax Reform as a conduit to send money from the Mississippi
Choctaws, one of Abramoff's clients, to the Alabama Christian Coalition? Now
is Ralph Reed tied in with that Alabama Christian Coalition? Is that one of the
ways he might have indirectly received money?

Mr. SHENON: That was one of the groups that was working closely with Reed to
organize these grassroots operations to block new casinos from opening. So
Reed would benefit from the money given to a third party through Ameri--I say
it's a confusing tale, the money trail. But the money would go from Abramoff's
operation to a--to Americans for Tax Reform or another group and somehow
indirectly this money would get to Ralph Reed, or so it's alleged.

GROSS: And this introduces another character into the story, Grover Norquist,
who's the head of Americans for Tax Reform. And Americans for Tax Reform is a
group that is staunchly against taxes. Just about any tax you can name they
would oppose. But Grover Norquist is very connected in Washington, way beyond
just the issue of taxes. Where does he fit into larger Washington politics?

Mr. SHENON: Well, you know, in the movement--among the movement conservatives
there are few people who are more influential and have more friends than Grover
Norquist. And Americans for Tax Reform really has--is one one of the principal
private groups in Washington pushing for the conservative agenda, largely
focused on smaller and smaller federal governments.

GROSS: And how does Grover Norquist know Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff and
Michael Scanlon? Are they--do they go back?

Mr. SHENON: Yeah, they go back again to the early 1980s with the College
Republicans. Abramoff is chairman. Norquist is a leader as well. Ralph Reed
arrives at College Republicans essentially as an intern and the three men have
a very--forge a very close friendship that lasts to this day as best we can

GROSS: So where does Grover Norquist fit into the investigation now? What
activities of his are being scrutinized?

Mr. SHENON: Well, I think the concern is that if there is something improper
about the way Abramoff was underwriting these anti-gambling crusades in some
Southern states and in Texas, I think the concern if there is anything illegal
about that, the fact that Mr. Norquist's group was used as a conduit for some
of those funds, that could bring him under scrutiny. Senator McCain, who has a
long antagonistic history with Mr. Norquist, has attempted to get Mr.
Norquist's tax records and has suggested that that is worthy of further
scrutiny by the Justice Department.

GROSS: And Grover Norquist is expressing his outrage in this.

Mr. SHENON: Oh, absolutely, and I don't think we have any strong sense that Mr.
Norquist is personally under scrutiny here. At this point I don't think we
know that about Mr. Reed either.

GROSS: So they're not necessarily being investigated? They're just characters
who are now--What?--on the periphery of this story?

Mr. SHENON: Well, that's a distinction, you know--all of these people are under
scrutiny to the extent the Justice Department has a vast, vast record of
documentation from Abramoff's office showing his connections with Reed, with
Norquist, with others who are, at least, indirectly connected to what the
Justice Department now describes as this effort to defraud the Indian tribes
and to corrupt public officials. So I guess that means they're all under

GROSS: Now there's another issue related to this that Grover Norquist is
involved in and that's the group CREA, the Council of Republicans for
Environmental Advocacy, a group he co-founded with Gale Norton, the secretary
of the Interior. Now what is being questioned about this group?

Mr. SHENON: The question is whether or not Abramoff used this small Republican
group to get decisions made at the Interior Department on behalf of Abramoff's
Indian tribe clients. And this has been--this was the focus of the final
hearings of Senator McCain's committee several weeks ago. The question being
whether or not Abramoff would use this group known as CREA led by a woman
called Italia Federici, who, at one point, was quite close to Interior
Secretary Gale Norton, to lobby the Interior Department to get things done for
Abramoff's Indian tribe clients. The Interior Department has a lot of
oversight over Indian tribe reservations and there's a lot of e-mail showing
that Abramoff would call this group CREA and this group CREA would then call
into the Interior Department and try to get things done, largely through the
offices of the deputy secretary of Interior of Steven Griles.

GROSS: So this means there are members of the Interior Department including the
head of it, Gale Norton, who might, at some point, be under scrutiny?

Mr. SHENON: I think Senator McCain's staff has been very clear--and Senator
McCain himself has been very clear that Ms. Norton is not herself under
scrutiny. I think a lot of questions have been raised, however, about the
actions of her deputy Steven Griles, a former lobbyist himself, now a lobbyist
again. And there were a lot of concerns expressed about Mr. Griles and his
testimony when he appeared before Senator McCain's committee a few weeks ago.
He suggested he had--he treated Jack Abramoff as he treated all lobbyists. He
did no special favors for him. He couldn't recall direct communications with
Abramoff often. But, in fact, the e-mail traffic from Abramoff's shop shows
there was a lot of contact with CREA, this group we were talking about, with
Griles suggesting that it was a much closer relationship. In fact, it became
known at this hearing that, in fact, Abramoff had offered Griles a job in his
lobbying shop while Griles was still at the Interior Department.

GROSS: Let's get into another chapter in the investigation into Jack Abramoff
and that's a business deal that he entered into with Adam Kidan. They bought
SunCruz, which was a fleet of casino boats, and they're charged with conspiracy
and wire fraud in the purchase of these boats. The trial is scheduled for
January. What's this story about?

Mr. SHENON: Oh, my goodness, the saga of Jack Abramoff, it goes everywhere.
This doesn't directly relate to the influence peddling scandals in Washington
but Abramoff, you know, ever the wheeler-dealer, decided to get into the casino
gambling business back in 2000 and the SunCruz gambling ship fleet became
available for purchase. And he and a business partner, Adam Kidan, sought to
purchase it. And according to the Justice Department, they dummied up a bunch
of papers that made the financing of the purchase possible and that's why they
have now been indicted for fraud down in Florida. Again, that does not relate
to what's going on in Washington, although I suspect the Justice Department may
well try to use the indictment down there as leverage to get Abramoff's
cooperation up here.

GROSS: And part of the intrigue around this particular case is that Constantine
Boulis who is--was one of the business partners that they bought this fleet of
gambling boats from, he was murdered gangland style.

Mr. SHENON: In February 2001, sure enough. He--his car is pulled over and he
is gunned down. And more recently three men have been charged with involvement
in that murder and they appear to be tied, at least indirectly, to Mr. Kidan,
Mr. Abramoff's business partner.

GROSS: So Kidan may be implicated in the murder?

Mr. SHENON: I don't think anybody's made that statement. It's--there's
certainly a lot of questions that have been raised. We do know that after the
sale went through there was very bad blood between Mr. Boulis and Mr. Kidan and
Mr. Abramoff and shortly thereafter, for reasons we don't understand at this
point, Mr. Boulis was gunned down.

GROSS: Now where does this Congressman Bob Ney, a Republican of Ohio, fit into
this story of the purchase of the SunCruz gambling boats?

Mr. SHENON: Well, he has lots of ties to Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon. In the
Florida situation Mr. Abramoff was able to use Congressman Bob Ney, an Ohio
Republican who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, to place into
the congressional record statements praising Mr. Kidan and other statements
condemning Mr. Boulis. And it doesn't appear that Mr. Ney had any real
information about either of these two men, yet he was apparently quite willing
to place in the official record of the House of Representatives these
statements for Mr. Abramoff. And the question is whether or not he did that in
exchange for some gift or a series of gifts that Mr. Abramoff provided him.

GROSS: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's
covering the investigations into lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon.
Shenon will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up: The larger implications of the Abramoff-Scanlon lobbying
scandal. We continue our conversation with Philip Shenon, who's been covering
the story for The New York Times. And Milo Miles reviews a reissue of a solo
album by record producer John Simon, best-known for his work in the '60s and

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Philip Shenon, an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's covering the
investigations into lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, as well as the
investigations into Tom DeLay.

Very interesting background that goes kind of beyond Washington politics. Why
don't you give us a kind of sketch of Jack Abramoff?

Mr. SHENON: Abramoff was born in Atlantic City. He moves as a boy with his
parents to Beverly Hills, where his father works for Arnold Palmer, the golfer.
Abramoff becomes very conservative as a young man. He goes off to Brandeis for
college. He becomes influential within the College Republican operation on the
East Coast, eventually becomes chairman in the 1980s of the College
Republicans, makes these friendships with people like Ralph Reed and Grover
Norquist that would pay benefits for decades to come.

He goes from Washington to Hollywood in the mid-1980s, where he decides that
he's going to follow his brother into the movie business, and he makes
apparently quite a forgettable action movie in the late 1990s--or, sorry, the
late 1980s called "Red Scorpion" with Dolph Lundgren, the action hero.

In 1994, the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress for the first
time in many, many years, and Abramoff sees a new opportunity to take--to cash
in, if you will. He comes to Washington and he becomes a big-shot lobbyist. He
certainly has the connections all over Washington to get things done for
corporate clients.

And he becomes best known here early for his very aggressive lobbying on behalf
of a tiny chain of islands in the western Pacific called the Northern Marianas.
The Northern Marianas are American territory, but they are not required to
abide by many federal labor laws, including the minimum wage law. So what
emerged in the 1980s were small garment factories. Migrant workers were
brought in from places like the Philippines and China to make garments at much
less than the minimum wage, with none of the protections that workers in this
country are entitled to, in conditions that are described by human rights
groups as sweatshops, and they're able to make these clothes and label them
`made in the USA.'

And this becomes an opportunity for Abramoff to prove himself as a champion of
the free market, because he--the garment manufacturers hire him on to defend
their interest, to argue that what is happening in the Northern Marianas is,
you know, a petri dish of capitalism, a real opportunity to prove that markets
work and that the federal government's taxation policies are unfair.

And over the course of several years, Abramoff flies out to the middle of the
Pacific many members of Congress, including Tom DeLay, offers them--puts them
up at luxurious hotels out there. The beaches are lovely out there; it's a
very nice part of the world in terms of physical appearance. They play golf,
they have a great time, and they see these garment factories and come back and
defend the practices when they return to Washington.

And from there it was, you know, philosophically not much of a leap for
Abramoff to start defending the interests of Indian tribes and their
sovereignty in running their casinos and their freedom from regulation by the
federal government.

GROSS: Is there any implication that Abramoff did anything wrong with the
Mariana Islands? Is what he did, you know, above board?

Mr. SHENON: Well, I think human rights groups would tell you differently, but I
don't think that has been so much the focus of what the Justice Department has
been up to. Abramoff did bring a lot of members of Congress out to the
Marianas to see what was going on, but there is, in fact, in Abramoff's old
lobbying firm, a document showing that contacts were made with the House Ethics
Committee to make sure that these trips were on the up-and-up. I say I think
much more of the focus of the attention of the Justice Department than the
criminal investigators is on what Abramoff did on behalf of the Indian tribes.

GROSS: At the risk of confusing our audience even more, I mean, it's so
challenging to cover this story, you know...

Mr. SHENON: Oh...

GROSS: ...because there's so many different chapters and interconnections
between people. And I mean, our goal here in this interview is to try to kind
of connect the dots and, you know, tell the story in one...

Mr. SHENON: I completely agree with you.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you have a lot of trouble telling this in the newspaper?

Mr. SHENON: I do. You're given 800 words, and it's very hard to get all this
in. You know, I've told my colleagues that if we could, you know, get Tom
Wolfe to decamp from the Upper East Side for a couple weeks and come on down
here, you know, this is sort of a "Bonfire of the Vanities" in Washington, you
know, larger-than-life characters, lots of money, fancy meals, excess, excess,
excess, excess. And, you know, it's a story that takes you all around the
world, lots of exotic locations. You know, you finish up in Margaret
Thatcher's offices in London. You finish up on, you know, what are described
as sweatshop garment factories out on a little tiny island in the Pacific. You
know, it's got lots of color and it just has tentacles everywhere, and it is
very difficult to compress into a daily newspaper story.

GROSS: OK, you have spelled out for us some of the practices that are being
investigated now by various groups surrounding, you know, Jack Abramoff the
lobbyist and his associate Michael Scanlon. So what do you think are some of
the larger implications of these ongoing investigations?

Mr. SHENON: Well, I think the largest implication is that you could see members
of Congress and other federal officials face real problems with the Justice
Department, face criminal charges that they accepted bribes or other illegal
gifts from Abramoff and Scanlon. I think there's a lot of fear on Capitol Hill
as to where the Justice Department is going here and what else Michael Scanlon
may know. And I think there is certainly the understanding that the Justice
Department might at some point be willing to reach a deal with Abramoff, in
exchange for which Abramoff would identify particular public officials who
broke the law.

GROSS: What is this story telling us about what lobbying is like in the United

Mr. SHENON: I think there are people who would argue that this story is proof
that things have spun out of control in terms of the influence of lobbyists and
their money on the workings of federal government. You know, your listeners
may have remembered that the last set of lobbying scandals in Washington,
Abscam in the 1980s, Koreagate in the 1970s, in which members of Congress
accepted gifts, bribes, that caused some of them to go to prison.

But if you look at the situation then, the amounts of money we're talking about
were chump change compared to what we're talking about with Abramoff and
company. You know, I think in Koreagate in the 1970s, the lobbyists handed out
envelopes filled with cash, you know, several thousand dollars, a couple
of--you know, 10,000, $20,000. But that's nothing compared to the amounts of
money we're talking about with Abramoff, who would spend a hundred thousand
dollars on a single trip for a single congressman to go golfing in Scotland, as
apparently happened here once.

GROSS: Is there an obvious line between what was legal and illegal in the
activities that Abramoff is alleged with having conducted, I mean, like, paying
for a hundred thousand dollar trip for a congressman? Is that clearly against
the rules?

Mr. SHENON: Well, like everything else, it gets a little murky because what
Abramoff would do in some of these cases is it appears at least he would have
money sent as donations to a particular charitable group, and then that
charitable group would sponsor the trip. And congressmen are allowed to accept
trips from legitimate educational and other sorts of groups. In the case of
Congressman Bob Ney, whom we were talking about earlier, who is pretty clearly
referenced to in the indictment of Michael Scanlon, Abramoff arranged for a
trip--I think Abramoff described it as being a hundred thousand dollar trip to
Scotland for Congressman Ney and a few others, including Ralph Reed, who we
were also talking about. And that was apparently paid for largely by a private
charity that Abramoff controlled and to which the major contributors were some
of his Indian tribe clients. So the Indian tribe clients send money into the
Capital Athletic Foundation, which is the charity. And this is the charity
that then sponsors a trip for Congressman Ney and others.

GROSS: It looks like we're not going to have time to talk about the
investigations into Tom DeLay. I think it's just too complicated to bring in
even more investigations...

Mr. SHENON: I understand.

GROSS: ...into the story. But how closely linked have Abramoff and Scanlon
been to Tom DeLay and how does the investigations into Scanlon and Abramoff
affect the investigations into DeLay, if at all?

Mr. SHENON: DeLay's under indictment now in Texas on charges involving
violations of the state election law, and that's unrelated to what's happening
in Washington. But DeLay was very--Scanlon worked for DeLay for a period of I
think a year or two. The two men were apparently, you know, reasonably close.
Abramoff and DeLay were very close. At one point, Tom DeLay publicly described
Abramoff as among his closest and dearest friends. And it's pretty clear from
the record that Abramoff was the man who organized a handful of extremely
lavish overseas trips for Tom DeLay, trips that have attracted the attention of
the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate and the Justice Department.

GROSS: What is your approach to covering the story? On the one hand,
obviously, you're covering all the investigations, the hearings and so on. But
are you also kind of investigating independently, trying to independently get
access to documents or kind of go behind the scenes and break new parts of the
story yourself.

Mr. SHENON: Oh, absolutely. You know, I have trouble sleeping at night with
the understanding that on Capitol Hill, there are apparently hundreds of
thousands of pages of Abramoff's e-mails documenting all sorts of things that I
think we'd like to know about. And almost every day brings some new revelation
about Abramoff and his lobbying. And there was a story a couple weeks ago we
had about how Abramoff had approached a small West African nation, Gabon, and
asked for--apparently, he was prepared to ask for $9 million on a lobbying
campaign that would focus on getting a meeting for the president of Gabon with
President Bush. We don't know any--if that money was ever paid or if there was
ever a signed contract, but sure enough, 10 months after Abramoff prepares the
paperwork on this, who should appear in the Oval Office but the president of
Gabon, who has a meeting with President Bush. And I think there's just an
awful lot more about Abramoff we don't know, and we may know more soon, though,
this investigation seems to be taking its time.

GROSS: Did you break that part of the story about Gabon?

Mr. SHENON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And...

Mr. SHENON: And I think there may be more to be coming on that front as to what
other representation Abramoff had on behalf of small nations abroad.

GROSS: What can you tell us about how you break a story like that?

Mr. SHENON: Well, in that case, it was, you know, somebody presented us with
these documents out of Abramoff's lobbying operation that showed this, you
know, pretty brazen effort on Abramoff's part to get a big payday for largely
arranging a single meeting at the White House.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter for The New York
Times. He's covering the investigations into lobbyists Jack Abramoff and
Michael Scanlon. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Shenon, and he is an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. And he's been investigating the
lobbying scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. He's also been
covering the investigations into Tom DeLay.

How does the fact that several journalists have been subpoenaed and asked to
testify and, in effect, have testified for the special prosecutor in the
investigation into Valerie Wilson? How has that affected your sources'
willingness to speak with you? And are you concerned that at some point, you
might be asked to testify in an investigation?

Mr. SHENON: You know, I'm not--I don't know if I'd face, in this case, that
possibility. Actually at the moment, along with my former colleague, Judith
Miller, there's an effort by the Justice Department to obtain some of my
telephone records involving stories we did after September 11. But apart from
that in this case, I don't--you know, I think there is a chilling effect on all
of us at the moment. There's a lot of nervous conversation when you talk with
folks about the Abramoff investigation or almost anything else going on in
Washington these days with worry about what are the implications on the part of
the source in talking to a reporter? You know, I'll go to prison if need be if
it's in exchange for valuable information, but I think the person who might
provide that valuable information to me is having second, third and fourth
thoughts about presenting it to me.

GROSS: Right. There have been a lot of e-mails that have been used as evidence
in this story. Some of them, I have to say, quite colorful and vivid in their
language. Do you have any, like, favorite quotes from the e-mails that have
circulated as part of this story?

Mr. SHENON: Oh, well, you know, if you ever had worries about your private
e-mail becoming public, I think Abramoff gives you reason to worry even more
because Abramoff clearly lived on e-mail. Every thought he had was expressed
on e-mail. And some of those thoughts were pretty colorful and some of them
were pretty ugly. And there have been e-mails that have come forward in which
Abramoff and Scanlon described their Indian tribe clients as troglodytes and
monkeys and all sorts of distasteful things. And there have been--just in
terms, again, the brazenness of this operation, you know, there's a lot of sort
of locker room chitchat, you know, `I want to get my mitts on their moola.' `I
want to--you know, fire up the jets, baby, we're going to El Paso to milk this

You know, as I say, I think this man put every thought onto a computer screen.
And all of that is now available to investigators of the Justice Department and
a lot of it is available to the investigators and the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee who can look into Abramoff for a long time. And I think maybe one of
the reasons we haven't seen a lot of that e-mail is because it does involve
serious allegations of illegal gifts given to public officials. And the Justice
Department doesn't want that out because it is now pursuing those public

GROSS: Michael Scanlon, who we talked about earlier, has a reputation as a
pretty tough guy. And he sent an e-mail, and this was during the Clinton
impeachment. This was right after--this was like the day that Clinton
testified to the grand jury about Monica Lewinsky, and Scanlon objected to,
quote, "this whole thing about not kicking someone when they're down; you kick
him until he passes out, then beat him over the head with a baseball bat, then
roll him up in an old rug and throw him off a cliff and pound the surf below"
exclamation point, exclamation point, with two more exclamation points. What...

Mr. SHENON: He loved those exclamation points, I can promise you.

GROSS: What role--was Scanlon's role in the impeachment process?

Mr. SHENON: You know, he's part of the DeLay war room. You know, I think for
many prominent Democrats, a lot of scores are being settled here. And, you
know, actually I think Tom DeLay and company argue this, that the reason they
are being singled out for investigation is because of--there's some vendetta
against them for their actions against Democrats in the past. But, no, no,
these are tough guys. These guys played for keeps.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of how the Republican Party is being affected by the
fact that Tom DeLay, the powerful House majority leader, is no longer House
majority leader and he's bogged down in investigations. Abramoff and Scanlon,
who were, you know, really major fund-raisers for Republicans, they're being
investigated. How are these investigations do you think, like, affecting the
larger power base of the Republican Party or of the Bush administration in

Mr. SHENON: I don't think we know yet, and, you know, you have to remember that
the opinion polls show that the public has held Congress in low esteem for
many, many years. So the fact that there might be bribery and corruption on
Capitol Hill, I don't know if it comes as a great shock, and I don't know how
it would affect the overall election results next year or in three years. The
concern on the part of a lot of Republican strategists is that some of this at
some point is going to take. I don't know if the criminal case against Tom
DeLay in Texas, for example--I don't know if people out in the public can
follow that. It's a rather convoluted tale about violations of state ethics

But, you know, this week, we had a plea bargain by a member of Congress, a
Republican from California, Duke Cunningham, who acknowledged taking, you know,
$2.4 million in bribes and this included things like a Rolls-Royce and an
antique toilet and a yacht that was apparently called The Dukester. I think
some of that probably is memorable detail that voters might remember next year
when they cast their ballots.

And I think in the case of Abramoff, the excess is so great and the details are
so, you know, delicious often, that people might remember that and
think--wonder whether or not there's a larger problem here. You know, I think
we're going to hear a lot in the future about Abramoff's restaurant in
Washington, which is called Signatures, one of the most expensive restaurants
in town that Abramoff used as a second office and at which he would, you know,
wine and dine members of Congress every night to an extraordinary degree and
comp them. He wouldn't charge them anything for that. And I think when we
find out exactly how much champagne Congressman X drank and how elaborate were
his meals with his wife and children and best friends, I think some of that
detail may be pretty memorable to a lot of people. And, as I say, I think then
we could see some effect on the larger election results.

GROSS: Where are we now in the investigations into Abramoff and Scanlon? Like,
what's next for both of them?

Mr. SHENON: Well, Scanlon's agreed to cooperate, and to some degree, he has
been cooperating apparently for several months. And I think we're waiting for
many shoes to drop. I don't know if we have any strong sense that there will
be additional indictments soon, but I think we're going to see additional
indictments down the road. Otherwise, the Justice Department wouldn't have
sought out a deal with Mr. Scanlon. Obviously, they consider his testimony
useful in bringing down others. You know, I think there's an understanding
that some sort of action against Abramoff is simply a matter of time.

GROSS: Philip Shenon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHENON: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter for The New York Times.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a reissued solo album by John Simon who produced
hit records by Big Brother & The Holding Company and The Band. This is FRESH



During the '60s and '70s, John Simon was a record producer with such hits as
"Music From the Big Pink" by The Band, "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother & The
Holding Company and "Child is Father to the Man" by Blood, Sweat & Tears. He
also made his own solo albums. His first from 1970, has been reissued and
critic Milo Miles has a review.

MILO MILES reporting:

When John Simon set out to make a solo record in 1970, he had a platinum
Rolodex to draw on. "John Simon's Album," as it was called, featured players
like Rick Danko and Richard Manuel from The Band, Leon Russell, guitarist John
Hall and members of Derek and the Dominos. Not surprisingly, the tunes on the
album suggested several of Simon's clients, such as The Band and Simon &

(Soundbite of music)

THE BAND: (Singing) Last year was seven years and it's all I needed to prove
(unintelligible). I'm a busted, dusted man and that's the truth. A rumbling,
tumbling tantamount. If a child could cry, you will surely drown.
(Unintelligible) that's you. When it crawls in you, you'll listen and it
speaks to your heart. How long can you think of a reason to pretend that you
(unintelligible). When it pulls you to its breast, what will you do? Do you
remember, Joe, it was quiet here...

MILES: But Simon combined a sharp feel for '60s pop and rock with a range of
musical interests that's almost unheard of today. Born in 1941 in Norfolk,
Connecticut, Simon played piano from age four and led jazz bands in high school
and college. He also showed a deep and abiding appreciation for Broadway
numbers and The Great American Songbook. Simon has mentioned Hoagy Carmichael
as a special face.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOAGY CARMICHAEL: (Singing) Whoo-ooh. Camden is a town where all is come
from, who-oo, all is come from. Billy was the best boy in the town. All the
little girls followed him around. Until he left for Middletown, be a success
and you know the rest. Camden...

MILES: The perception at the time was that pre-rock and soul styles had never
been further away from pop hipness. But The Beatles and Beach Boys are always
sneaking in pre-rock references and Simon was already adept at it when he
produced Simon & Garfunkel's "Faking It" in 1967. Plus, the characters in
"John Simon's Album" were total modern, misfits and dreamers with their youth
battered by tumultuous times. Still trying to remain hopeful, whether they
were the motorcycle man or the fool dressed in velvet or bruised, wistful

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And Annie looked down at the city street, the
(unintelligible) her husband, down past several children playing in the sun.
And Annie walks over to a magazine that's opened to an article that tells about
the future. It's gotta be better than what she's going through. Annie,
whatcha doing? You want to move on but you're tired of moving. Annie, where's
that sparkle that you had as a child and who's that (unintelligible) smile?
And Annie looks down...

MILES: Simon's alignment of styles was hard to maintain. Even on his second
solo album, "Journey," the plain had become slickly jazzy, dreamlike characters
become merely whimsical and his delicate alienation slid toward sentimentality.
Simon still makes the occasional album for his Japanese cult following, but
they are very, well, comfortable and content works. He did arrange and produce
one recent record I recommend, the charming and low-key Hoagyland from 2000.
It features jaunty arrangements of Carmichael tunes sung by John Sebastian,
Steve Forbert and others. Come to think of it, though, the old "John Simon's
Album" debut is just as timeless. It's an album Hoagy Carmichael might have
made if he'd been in his prime in 1970.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed "John Simon's Album" which has been reissued.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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