Photo shows Abramoff present at Bush meeting

February 12, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- After weeks in which the White House has declined to release pictures of President Bush with Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist, the first photograph to be published of the two men shows a small, partly obscured image of Abramoff looking on from the background as Bush greets a Texas Indian chief in May 2001.

By itself, the picture hardly seems worthy of the White House's efforts to keep it out of the public eye.

Abramoff, a leading Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to corrupt public officials, is little more than a blurry, bearded figure in the background at a gathering of about two dozen people.

But it provides a window, albeit an opaque one, into Abramoff's efforts to sell himself to Indian tribes as a man of influence who could open the most secure doors in Washington to them.

And it leaves unanswered questions about how Abramoff and the tribal leader, whom he was trying to sign as a client, gained access to a meeting with the president on the White House grounds that was ostensibly intended for a group of state legislators who were supporting Bush's 2001 tax cut plan.

The White House confirmed the authenticity of the photograph. The Indian chief, Raul Garza of the Kickapoo tribe of southwest Texas, provided the photo to The New York Times.

Garza, who is under indictment on federal charges of embezzling money from his tribe, said he was eager to demonstrate that he had "nothing to hide" in his dealings with the White House and Abramoff.

A lawyer for Garza said Abramoff arranged for the chief to attend the meeting, in a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.

The meeting took place when the lobbyist was seeking a contract to represent the 800-member tribe and its casino, which was producing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in revenue.

Abramoff never got the contract.

It is not clear what contact, if any, Abramoff had with Bush during the 20 minutes or so that the session lasted.

Garza said he had been offered money from news organizations to reproduce the photograph, which also shows in partial profile Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, at the May 9, 2001, meeting.

The chief did not seek payment from The Times for the photo - and two others in which he appears with Bush - but insisted without explanation that they be published only in black and white.

The picture was taken by a White House photographer.

The president's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Friday that the presence of the lobbyist and Garza at the meeting, which was organized to thank a group of state legislators who had supported the president's 2001 tax cut program, did not suggest that Abramoff had any special influence at the White House.

Bush has said that he cannot recall having met Abramoff, though the White House has not disputed accounts that Abramoff came to the White House on a number of occasions.

McClellan said that Abramoff's name had not appeared on the invitation list of the May 2001 meeting and that it was not clear how the lobbyist had entered the White House grounds.

A spokesman for Abramoff had no comment on the photograph or on his contacts with Garza.

It is not clear how Abramoff might have gotten Garza included in the president's meeting.

White House records show that the meeting was also attended by Grover Norquist, a friend of Abramoff's who is a leading conservative strategist and president of the group Americans for Tax Reform, which was helping to rally support for Bush's tax cuts, the issue that was the reason for the meeting.

A spokesman for Norquist declined to comment on his involvement in the meeting.

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