WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2006 -- Hours before the beginning of a three-day holiday weekend, the White House announced the resignation of Susan Ralston, a top aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
Just a week before, Ralston's name was mentioned 162 times in a 93-page congressional report on the influence wielded in the Bush White House by uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a convicted felon.
The bipartisan House Government Reform Committee studied documents from Greenberg Traurig LLP, Abramoff's former lobbying firm -- billing records and other documents -- indicating that Abramoff and his team had made 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials over three years, 69 of which were with Ralston, who seemed to serve as a messenger between the Abramoff and White House camps.
Before coming to the White House, Ralston served as executive assistant to Abramoff. In her letter, dated Thursday but released to the media toward the end of the day today, Ralston wrote that "the time has come for me to pursue other opportunities."
She could not be reached for comment.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said the White House would let Ralston's letter speak for itself.
"We appreciate her years of able service and accept her judgment that it's appropriate to step down at this time," Perino said. "She did not want to be a distraction to the White House at such an important time and so we have accepted her resignation."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said in a statement that "It looks like the White House is trying to make Susan Ralston the scapegoat."
Waxman said the committee has unanswered questions "about the assistance that Ms. Ralston provided Mr. Abramoff from inside the White House."
"There are also many unanswered questions about the assistance that higher-ranking White House officials appeared to provide Mr. Abramoff," including former White House political director Ken Mehlman, who is now chairman of the Republican National Committee, Waxman added.
Abramoff billed his clients $24,930 for 186 dinners, lunches and breakfasts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004, the House committee concluded, and he provided tickets to various events for White House officials during that time as well. It is not known if anyone reimbused Abramoff for the gifts; White House employees are banned from accepting gifts worth more than $20 from lobbyists.
Ralston, the report states, attended only 14 of the Abramoff meals, but she was the most frequent recipient of the tickets. She appears to have received tickets to nine events, including games played by the Washington Wizards and Capitals and the Baltimore Orioles, and concerts by Andrea Bocelli and Bruce Springsteen.
But that didn't seem to be Ralston's biggest problem. In a statement, the House committee wrote that Ralston's "role in brokering requests to Rove from her former boss raises questions, not answered in Committee documents or the report, about some of her activities."
But Ralston was mentioned most frequently in the report as a conduit between Abramoff and the White House, unwelcome news for the White House so close to the midterm elections, with Democrats trying to make an issue out of a "culture of corruption" they accuse Republicans of having wrought.
Said one White House adviser, who would speak to ABC News only on condition of anonymity, "Susan Ralston is a great example of why it's so hard to find good people to serve in government anymore. It's hard to imagine anyone who was more committed to simply doing a good job and doing it well."
Ralston, the adviser said, "could have left government years ago for money in the private sector, but chose to stay on as a good servant of democracy. But, like the ultimate good soldier, she made the right decision and fell on her sword rather than become a partisan political piñata."
The bipartisan House committee report concludes that the "documents reflect several successful efforts by Abramoff to urge White House action -- or inaction -- regarding political endorsements." And often those efforts were made at least partly through Ralston -- with her largely serving in an apparently administrative capacity.
Abramoff's lobbying team, for instance, urged White House officials, including Rove and Mehlman, to essentially fire Allen Stayman, an employee of the U.S. State Department who advocated labor reforms in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Abramoff represented the Marianas Islands government as a lobbyist. "Mehlman said he would get him fired," one Abramoff lobbyist wrote to another.
On July 9, 2001, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff that the Office of Presidential Personnel and the State Department had "worked out a deal" and that Stayman would "be out in 4 months." Stayman's appointment was not renewed.
On Oct. 9, 2002, Abramoff e-mailed Mehlman to seek the president's endorsement for Republican candidates running in Guam. Days later, Ralston wrote back that "Ken asked me to let you know that he has the quote to be approved for your Guam candidates."
The White House Office of Political Affairs sent Abramoff an endorsement calling the candidates "strong, effective leaders" with the president promising that "my Administration will work closely with them to see Guam remains a trusted friend."
Abramoff was able to use his connections and influence to permeate the inner reaches of the White House even at a time when the United States was reeling from the 9/11 attacks and preparing for war in Afghanistan.
During the 2001 gubernatorial race in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Abramoff lobbied the administration to withhold support for Republican candidate Juan Babauta; Abramoff supported rival third-party candidate Benigno Fitial, then speaker of the House in the Commonwealth.
On Oct. 26, 2001, Abramoff wrote to Mehlman that Babauta had "undercut Congressional Republicans at every turn" and stating that an "endorsement would be a mistake." Four days later, Ralston told Abramoff that Rove had "read your memo." On Oct. 31, 2001, Ralston wrote to Abramoff: "You win :). KR said no endorsement."
In another instance, on Jan. 17, 2002, Abramoff asked Ralston if he could meet with Rove regarding the Choctaw Native American Indian tribe, stating that "they are getting screwed" by a liberal Republican at the Department of Justice "about funding for their jail project."
The Choctaw, Abramoff wrote, have "been one of the party's best helpers, and this is totally incredible."
Ralston told Abramoff that Rove was unavailable but recommended a meeting with Ruben Barrales, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, who, Ralston assured, "works directly under karl [sic]."
But Ralston was not always the bearer of good news. After Abramoff requested a meeting between Rove and the foreign minister of Qatar, Ralston's curt e-mail reply states: "Rove said no. Thanks susan."
In February 2003, Abramoff e-mailed her with a request that "you could pass on to Karl that [the Department of] Interior is about to approve a gaming compact and land in trust for a tribe which is an anathema to all our supporters down there. It's called the Jena tribe, and the politicos (!) at Interior (low-mid level) are agreeing to this. It will cause a major backlash from our coalition and is something which they should not do on the merits."
Abramoff said that it was "important, if possible, to get some quiet message from WH that this is absurd."
This effort also appears unsuccessful. "Karl and others are aware," Ralston wrote, "but the WH is not going to get involved."
The House committee's report states that the "documents depict a much closer relationship between Mr. Abramoff and White House officials than the White House has previously acknowledged."
The committee also stated that its report "reveals only scant and circumstantial evidence that Abramoff's encounters and entreaties had a dispositive impact on administration policy or personnel decisions," but some Democrats on the committee argue that many questions remain unanswered.
White House officials have countered that Abramoff is a known liar whose billing records and claims should not be taken at face value.
"Jack Abramoff was an exuberant practitioner of sleaze," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
White House officials have argued that since only one out of 20 of those people Abramoff recommended to be named to political positions actually got the job, indicating Abramoff wielded far less influence than advertised.
"If he was telling people that he was getting results, they were getting ripped off," Snow said.
White House spokeswoman Perino said today that the administration's "review of the House Government Reform Committee's report is complete. We expect nothing more after our thorough review."
"It is ludicrous for the White House to say it considers the review of committee report 'complete' when it has not provided answers to any of the most important questions involving Mr. Mehlman and other senior White House officials," Waxman said.
Karen Travers contributed to this report.