How lobbyist's troubles felled Columbia school

Jack Abramoff promised much at Eshkol Academy. But corruption allegations would crumble his empire.

May 18, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The abandoned school in Columbia, its black and gold team colors still painted on the walls, holds the dusty remains of a Washington operator's grand plans.

The Eshkol Academy, founded by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, promised a top-flight Orthodox Jewish education and gleaming facilities. Eshkol, its crest a raging lion, advertised all the privileges of a power school - a state-of-the-art sports program, a path to a fine college, a means to a sparkling resume.

FOR THE RECORD - In Wednesday's Sun, an article about the Eshkol Academy reported that Rabbi David Lapin, a one-time employee of the school, was targeted by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands over a $1.2 million contract. The information was credited to a New York Times report that was subsequently corrected; the government of the islands did not say it was questioning Lapin but has said it has been unable to determine what work Lapin performed for that fee. Efforts to reach Lapin before the publication of The Sun's article were unsuccessful. Lapin told The Sun yesterday that he charged appropriately for his work.

But a year ago, after two problem-filled terms, Abramoff stepped onto the school grounds from his chauffeured limousine and announced that Eshkol would close its doors.

Graduation was just a month away, but no matter. Eshkol was over.

At that moment, Abramoff's empire was crumbling under intense scrutiny. The Justice Department was examining whether the powerful lobbyist - who earned millions of dollars representing, among others, American Indian casino interests - used nonprofit organizations to fund improper activities. Several months later, he would appear before a Senate committee and face accusations of corruption.

As federal investigators examine Abramoff's involvement in arranging perks for lawmakers, including House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas, they are also looking into the finances of a charity that Abramoff created - a nonprofit that helped fund Eshkol and also is alleged to have paid for an expensive overseas golf trip for an Ohio congressman.

`Like a Greek tragedy'

The controversy over Abramoff is playing out in the national news, but the price has already been paid closer to home by Eshkol, where the sudden closing left students without a school, teachers claiming missed paychecks and staff members sounding burned. Thirteen former Eshkol employees, many of whom depict the school as a misguided experiment in education, have sued Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, for $140,226 in back pay.

"The school was totally unable to function as an educational institution," said Samuel Whitehill, a former Hebrew teacher at Eshkol. "It was like a Greek tragedy."

Former staffers say Abramoff's plans for the school were flawed. They say he approved the purchase of two Zamboni machines to support an Eshkol ice hockey team even though the academy lacked a rink and that he lured Israeli students for the school basketball team even though league rules bar athletic recruitment.

"Jack was a very grandiose guy; he was in some sense infantile and suffering from delusions of grandeur," said Joe Sweeney, one of the Eshkol teachers suing Abramoff. "Even a number of children became quite cynical about the school. They'd say, `Eshkol's a joke.'"

In Abramoff's defense

Abramoff and his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, refused requests for comment for this article. A spokesman for Abramoff's lawyer said that Eshkol and the Capital Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit group started by Abramoff that helped fund the school, were properly run charitable institutions.

"Mr. Abramoff is active in his community and has been very supportive of a number of efforts, including being a primary donor of funds used to sustain the Eshkol Academy," spokesman Andrew Blum said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that Eshkol School could not continue, but the teachers who got most of their salaries have no basis to sue the Abramoffs, who did nothing but support that school for as long as they could."

Polly Haynes, Eshkol's accountant, said she was shocked to learn from The Washington Post last year that tribal money funded the school. Tribal dollars went into the Capital Athletic Foundation, and much of its $4 million was used to pay for Eshkol.

Abramoff "didn't tell me anything about the Capital Athletic Foundation; I thought it was one of his businesses," Haynes said. "I called a person, gave her how much the bills were, and she transferred the funds, enough to cover the checks. Nothing ever struck me as weird."

Lingering questions

But there are questions about the foundation's finances. A Senate committee reportedly is investigating whether the Capital Athletic Foundation, which advertised itself as a sports charity for underprivileged youth, paid for a golf trip to Scotland in 2002 by Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who heads the House Administration Committee, and others.

And Eshkol itself is under scrutiny. According to Senate investigators, Abramoff tried to persuade the Tigua Indian tribe of Texas to take out life insurance on its elders and make Eshkol the sole beneficiary. The tribe rejected the idea.

Now a top staff member from Eshkol is under fire. Rabbi David Lapin, a friend of Abramoff's who served briefly as a top Eshkol administrator, is being targeted by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which cannot determine whether Lapin performed any work in return for a $1.2 million contract to promote ethics in government, according to The New York Times. That is one of several contracts the U.S. territory awarded to Abramoff and his associates.

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