Seattle law firm caught in glare of spotlight aimed at lobbyist
After the Republican sweep of 1994, the Seattle-based law and lobbying firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds sought to better...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The firm landed a big catch: Jack Abramoff, a former head of the College Republicans and friend of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay.
Today, Abramoff — who left the firm Dec. 31, 2000 — has become a magnet for negative attention inside the Beltway. His political connections, lucrative fees and business relationships have sparked investigation and inquiry, some of it leading to his ex-employer, Preston Gates.
No one has accused Preston Gates of wrongdoing and the firm says it has nothing to hide. But its D.C. operation is caught in the same spotlight of media and government attention focused on its former star.
Members of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee charged that after Abramoff left Preston Gates, he and another former Preston Gates lobbyist funneled more than $66 million from six tribes to their personal bank accounts, private ventures and think tanks. Abramoff first began working for several of the tribes on tax and gaming issues as a Preston Gates lobbyist.
When it next convenes, the House ethics committee is almost certain to examine foreign trips by DeLay that Abramoff paid for while he worked at Preston Gates. House ethics rules forbid members from accepting trips paid for by lobbyists.
A federal task force has convened to examine Abramoff's work for the tribes. Jonathan Blank, managing partner of Preston Gates' Washington operation, said his firm is cooperating with the investigations.
In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, he would not answer questions such as: How did the firm organize its D.C. office? Was it possible a lobbyist such as Abramoff could violate House ethics rules without Preston Gates managers knowing about it?
Regardless of how the DeLay matter turns out, Blank said, Preston Gates did not overbill its clients, a charge some in Congress leveled against Abramoff.
However, a California lawmaker recently urged a separate investigation into how the firm billed the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands after the auditor there reported the commonwealth "may have paid too much for services of Preston Gates. ... " Abramoff was the lead lobbyist.
Contacted for this story, a spokesman for Abramoff said: "Any fair reading of Mr. Abramoff's career would show that his clients benefited immensely from the hard work he and his team did on their behalf. His success for these clients was extensive and has been documented in numerous articles prior to the onset of assault on Mr. Abramoff by the media."
"Avoid embarrassments"Preston Gates traces its roots to Harold Preston, who arrived in Seattle from Iowa in 1883 and started a solo law practice. Civic activist Jim Ellis joined in 1949. The firm of William H. Gates Sr., father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, merged with Preston in 1990.
In 1973, the firm opened its Washington, D.C., office, including on its nameplate former Democratic Congressman Lloyd Meeds, who represented northwest Washington from 1965 to 1979, and Emanuel Rouvelas, former counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee.
Al Swift, himself a D.C. lobbyist and former Washington congressman, has known Meeds and Rouvelas for decades. "They are men of enormous personal integrity," he said.
According to Influence, a publishing firm tracking the lobbying industry, Preston Gates' D.C. operation grossed more than $21 million last year. It is acknowledged to be the largest lobbying firm with Northwest connections.
Preston Gates offers various legal services along with advice on how to navigate the political process.
According to the firm's promotional material, its government-ethics practice strives to keep all regulations in mind "to avoid any embarrassments for clients or government decision-makers."
But DeLay, now House majority leader, was certainly not happy to read the April 24 edition of The Washington Post, which detailed how Abramoff paid for DeLay's trip in 2000 to London and Scotland.
The newspaper reported that Preston Gates was listed on the invoice for DeLay's plane fare.
A spokesman for DeLay said the lawmaker was unaware how the trip was paid for.
Ethics experts said the travel payment presents possible problems for DeLay, but not necessarily for Preston Gates. The rules forbidding travel payments are enforced on House members, not on outside firms.
But, according to Larry Noble of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff demonstrated "willful ignorance, tremendous sloppiness or just not caring" by paying for a trip he should have known could cause trouble for DeLay.
Blank said his firm has continually told its partners "that we expect people to follow the governing ethics rules."
Asked if Abramoff was reprimanded for paying for DeLay's travel, Blank responded: "I don't think that's a useful question to answer."
Months before the DeLay travel payments became public, congressional investigators had begun looking into Abramoff's billing of Indian tribes after he left Preston Gates at the end of 2000.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee determined that six tribes paid more than $66 million to Abramoff and another lobbyist, Michael Scanlon, who formerly worked for Preston Gates and earlier had served as DeLay's press secretary. That's in addition to the millions of dollars the tribes paid to Abramoff's lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, which he left in 2004.
The FBI, Interior Department and Internal Revenue Service are trying to determine whether the two men defrauded their Indian clients by charging too much, misusing funds and manipulating tribal elections. In an August letter to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, one tribal leader noted the matter was currently the subject of a federal grand jury.
"It is a story of greed run amok," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., during a congressional hearing last September. "It is a story of two already powerful, wealthy men lining their own pockets with the hard-earned money of people they held in contempt and disregard."
One of the tribes, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, paid Preston Gates at least $5.5 million from 1998 to 2000, according to lobbying reports filed with the secretary of the Senate.
The name on most of the reports filed on behalf of Preston Gates: Government Affairs Counsel Jack Abramoff.
Meeds, the former Washington state congressman, was also listed as a Preston Gates lobbyist working for the Choctaws, along with William Jarrell, who had formerly served as DeLay's deputy chief of staff.
Blank was quick to point out that no one had suggested that Preston Gates overbilled its Indian clients, and so far, much of the congressional attention has focused on what Abramoff did after he left the firm.
Another inquiry requestedAll the attention surrounding Abramoff and Indian tribes prompted Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to demand a congressional inquiry into Abramoff's role representing the Northern Mariana Islands while he was at Preston Gates.
The Northern Mariana Islands, located halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines, paid Preston Gates about $6.7 million from 1994 to 2000.
Much of the commonwealth's focus was on defeating a minimum-wage proposal that would have affected its textile industry.
In 2002, the Office of the Public Auditor for the commonwealth released a report stating that it "could not ... verify the impact of lobbyists in Washington."
Blank said he had not read the audit and the Northern Mariana Islands had never shared concerns about billing with the firm.
"We provided outstanding service to the client and achieved all their goals," he said.
Indeed, how to measure a lobbyist's success is certain to be a big part of the Abramoff investigations.
During a Sept. 29 hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted the millions of dollars flowing from Indian reservations to lobbyists. "But what the tribes actually received for such astronomical sums is mystifying," he said.
While Democrats and Republicans iron out ethics rules and prepare to examine DeLay's travel expenses, federal investigators continue to delve into the use of tribal money in D.C.
Blank said Preston Gates will make public more details about the firm's lobbying operation after the inquiries are complete.
Asked whether the firm regretted hiring Abramoff, Blank replied: "I think we'll wait and let time give us a verdict on that question."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or email@example.com
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