June 9, 2008 -- The White House had stronger ties to disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff than it has publicly admitted, according to a draft congressional report released Monday.
President Bush met Abramoff on at least four occasions the White House has yet to acknowledge, according to the draft report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
And White House officials appeared as comfortable going to Abramoff and his lobbyists seeking tickets to sporting and entertainment events, as they did seeking input on personnel picks for plum jobs, the report found.
President Bush himself met Abramoff on at least six occasions, the report said, citing White House documents; the White House had previously acknowledged only two.
When questions were first raised about Abramoff's connection to Bush officials in January 2006, then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had personally met Abramoff on just two occasions, both at White House Hanukkah receptions.
McClellan told reporters there had also been "a few staff-level meetings" between officials and Abramoff and his team, but declined to provide more information.
That number was significantly higher, White House lawyer Emmet Flood indicated in correspondence to committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., two years later, according to the draft report. Flood's letter identified six photographs of Bush with Abramoff or Abramoff's family members, which the White House provided (http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20080609142441.pdf) to investigators.
"Give me a break," responded White House spokesman Tony Fratto when asked about the apparent discrepancy. "Do you know how many people get their picture taken with the President of the United States?"
McClellan, now publicizing his kiss-and-tell memoir, "What Happened," did not respond to a request for comment made to his publicist. "What Happened" does not mention Abramoff.
The committee's draft report is based on documents it obtained from the White House and Abramoff's old lobby firm as well as with interviews with former White House officials. At least three former officials declined to answer some or all of the investigators' questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the draft report said.
The report follows up on a September 2006 report on Abramoff and the White House by the same panel, which found Abramoff and his associates had billed clients for 485 contacts with the White House.
At that time, the White House criticized the document for relying on billing records which were "widely viewed as fraudulent," and insisted that Abramoff "got nothing" for his efforts to influence White House decisions.
In its new draft report, the committee said that it could not confirm the majority of those 485 contacts by using the new documents it obtained from the White House and Abramoff's old lobby firm, though the new documents identified others.
While investigators could not corroborate roughly 400 of the 485 contacts reported in Abramoff's billing records, the new documents -- mostly emails -- indicated 70 other contacts had taken place between Abramoff's team and White House officials which were not included in the billing records, the report said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto called the report "warmed up leftovers" and "a joke."
"Abramoff carried no weight here as the report makes clear," Fratto wrote in an e-mail Monday afternoon. "Abramoff was spectacularly unsuccessful in affecting policy," he said. "There's nothing new here."
The draft report's findings, however, stated that "communications from Mr. Abramoff and his associates carried weight with White House officials."
On "some occasions," investigators found, "White House offiicals initiated contact with Mr. Abramoff and his associates to solicit recommendations on nominations for Administration posts." However, aside from ousting a Clinton-era State Department employee Abramoff had drawn a bead on -- one who had already inflamed other conservatives -- the report shows little evidence of Abramoff getting results from the White House.
The committee's 2006 report found 19 instances in which White House officials asked for tickets to events from Abramoff and his associates, or were offered them. The new draft report said the new documents confirmed 15 of those and indicated six more instances, including tickets for soprano Sarah Brightman, to an NCAA basketball tournament game, tickets to the Washington Wizards and tickets to the Baltimore Orioles.
White House officials are generally restricted from receiving gifts worth more than $20 each, and from taking more than $50 in gifts from one source in a year. The White House did not respond to whether it was concerned about its employees violating federal gift rules.