White House Staffers Held Abramoff 'In High Regard' & Rove Was in on Discussions of Removing State Department Official

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 08:11 PM

On Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released its report titled JACK ABRAMOFF'S CONTACTS WITH WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS. Interesting reading; if you haven't already looked at it, follow the link in the last sentence.

That the White House initially understated its contacts with Abramoff, and its knowledge/awareness of Abramoff, and Abramoff's influence is certainly no shock. The degree to which several high White House officials were tied to Abramoff's hip may be surprising to those who haven't already admitted to themselves that our country is currently run by the largest most blatant band of scalawags to grace the presidential mansion since...well, maybe since there's been a presidential mansion.

The news media have tended to focus on the fact that there are six pictures of Abramoff in the company of Bush. That doesn't impress me, particularly, given that Abramoff was a big money man and that Bush, like most holders of high office, spend their lives rubbing greasy elbows with these guys. Bush's immediate denial that he "knew" Abramoff is only mildly outrageous to me, given the immediate tendency of just about all politicians to run away from potentially damaging news and associations. The statements that ran as a 50-point headline in my mind were (I've left footnote numbers in; you'll have to follow the link to the Report to see what the references are):

  • Senior White House officials held Mr. Abramoff and others on his team in high regard. In a deposition, Matt Schlapp, Director of the White House Office of Political Affairs (OPA) from 2003 to 2005, testified that he considered Mr. Abramoff to be a "point of information," based on "his knowledge and his experience and his judgment on issues surrounding politics and policy and how the town works."72 With respect to Tony Rudy, Mr. Schlapp said, "He is somebody I had great professional trust in, whose opinion I respected."73 Similarly, Ken Mehlman, Director of OPA from 2001 to 2003, stated, "Mr. Rudy is someone I knew, and believed to be a person that was honest and supportive of the President."74
  • One action that White House officials took at the request of Mr. Abramoff was to intervene to force the removal of a State Department official, Alan Stayman. In a previous position at the Office of Insular Affairs in the Department of the Interior, Mr. Stayman had advocated positions opposed by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, then a client of Mr. Abramoff....the White House discussion of Mr. Stayman’s position ultimately involved Karl Rove and even reached top National Security Council staff.
Stayman was, at the time, State's chief negotiator in talks with the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia on the terms of a new Compact of Free Association between those islands and the US. As to Stayman's dismissal, here's the relevant portion of the House Committee Report:
The White House documents show that Mr. Abramoff, Mr. Rudy, and Kevin Ring pressed the Stayman case with White House officials. At the White House, Matt Schlapp, Monica Kladakis, and Susan Ralston had the most frequent communications on this issue. However, the White House discussion of Mr. Stayman’s position ultimately involved Karl Rove and even reached top National Security Council staff. And in the internal White House communications about Mr. Stayman’s case, White House officials repeatedly noted they would be giving status reports to Abramoff lobbyists.

On May 9, 2001, Monica Kladakis, Deputy Associate Director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, e-mailed Tony Rudy and said: "By the way, I have not forgotten about your concern about Alan Stayman — we just have had to work on filling our top positions before focusing on the possibly problematic people." Mr. Rudy responded, "More evidence of your greatness! Thanks."82 On June 11, 2001, Mr. Rudy followed up with Ms. Kladakis, asking if there was "any news" on Mr. Stayman,83 and three days later e-mailed her to provide a resume of a suggested replacement for Mr. Stayman.84 On the same day, Ms. Kladakis thanked him for the resume and responded, "We’re still checking this out."85

On June 18, 2001, Mr. Rudy e-mailed Matt Schlapp about the Stayman appointment, reminding Mr. Schlapp that they had spoken about the issue "a few months ago," and asking "Is there anyway [sic] you can weigh in with presidential personnel?"86 The same day, Mr. Schlapp forwarded Mr. Rudy’s e-mail to Monica Kladakis, asking "how do we fix this?" Ms. Kladakis replied that she was seeking information from Doug Fehrer at the Office of Personnel Management regarding whether Stayman was a career or political appointee, and said, "I think we can do something about it, but I’m trying to figure out what is the best way to go about it. I don’t want a firing scandal on our hands."87 Mr. Schlapp responded, "Let me know if I need to call Kay James or Doug."88 Ms. Kladakis followed up with Mr. Schlapp the same day, reporting, "I just got off the phone with Doug — he’s got a couple of things to look into for me but it looks good."89

On June 20, 2001, Ms. Kladakis again e-mailed Mr. Schlapp, telling him, "Good news — State is going to inform Al Stayman that his term is not going to be extended, so as of June 30 he will be gone. I will let Tony Rudy know."90 Mr. Schlapp responded, "Will you let Tony know for me as well? He has talked to me about it a few times."91

Around the same time that Mr. Rudy was reaching out to Mr. Schlapp and Ms. Kladakis, Mr. Abramoff also made the case for White House intervention to Ms. Ralston. The White House documents contained a version of the June 25, 2001, e-mail exchange between Mr. Abramoff and Ms. Ralston that was also in the Greenberg production. In this e-mail, Mr. Abramoff expressed concern about Mr. Stayman staying at the State Department, and provided background to Ms. Ralston on Mr. Stayman that he asked her to pass to Karl Rove.92 The White House documents reveal that Ms. Ralston then forwarded Mr. Abramoff’s e-mail to Matt Schlapp, asking "Do you know anything about this?," and Mr. Schlapp replied, "yes, we are all over it. This is a problem."93

The White House documents additionally show that on June 26, 2001, Mr. Abramoff sent Ms. Ralston information on a proposed replacement for Mr. Stayman. Ms. Ralston forwarded this e-mail to Mr. Schlapp, noting "Here’s who Jack recommends for Stayman’s spot at State." Mr. Schlapp the same day forwarded Mr. Abramoff’s information to Ms. Kladakis, asking, "what about his guy?"94 Ms. Kladakis responded that Ambassador Kelly had interviewed him and had concerns.95

According to the White House documents, on June 27, 2001, Kevin Ring sent Ms. Ralston a Washington Times column that expressed concern about the potential extension of Mr. Stayman’s employment at the State Department. Ms. Ralston forwarded this e-mail to Mr. Schlapp, noting "more bad news on Stayman," and he forwarded this e-mail in turn to Ms. Kladakis.96 In response, Ms. Kladakis explained that the termination of Mr. Stayman’s tenure involved a four-month transition period: "Stayman was approved for a 4-month extension — our Assistant Secretary did not want a vacancy (negotiations next week) and concerned that 3 months would not be enough since State takes 90 days on average for clearance. I’ve passed this on to Tony Rudy."97

On June 29, 2001, Ms. Ralston told Ms. Kladakis that a member of Congress was concerned that Mr. Stayman was not leaving until after the four-month transition period.98 Ms. Kladakis responded by reiterating to Ms. Ralston the information she had provided to Mr. Schlapp regarding the Assistant Secretary’s concerns about needing Mr. Stayman during the negotiations coming up the next week and ensuring sufficient time to process the clearance of his replacement.99 Ms. Ralston in turn forwarded this explanation to Karl Rove on June 29, asking if she could talk with him about the matter and referencing the memo Mr. Abramoff provided.100

On July 2, 2001, Ms. Ralston e-mailed Mr. Abramoff’s memo on Allen Stayman to National Security Council staff director Stephen Hadley, copying two other individuals with National Security Council e-mail addresses, noting "Karl asked me to pass this email on to you." She explained that Mr. Stayman had been provided a four-month stay at State before he was to leave, and that a member of Congress was upset, and asked what Mr. Hadley could do to help.101 The documents do not reflect that Mr. Hadley took any action or responded to this e-mail. On July 5, 2001, Mr. Rove e-mailed Mr. Schlapp to ask the status of the Stayman matter.102

In his deposition with the Committee, Mr. Schlapp asserted that he remembered "vaguely working on a case that involved" Mr. Stayman,103 but that he did not know whether he followed up on Tony Rudy’s June 18, 2001, e-mail request for assistance in the Stayman matter, and he did not recall talking with anyone in the Office of Presidential Personnel or anywhere else in the White House about this issue.104

Similarly, Mr. Mehlman stated that he had a very "murky recollection" of the Stayman matter, a "general recollection of yeah, there was some guy they didn’t like, but I don’t remember a lot of the specifics."105 Ms. Ralston would not address any subject concerning communications with the Abramoff team.106

In her Committee deposition, Ms. Kladakis said she believed Mr. Rudy was the person who "first brought the situation [with Mr. Stayman] to my attention,"107 and she did not dispute that OPP intervened in the decision regarding Mr. Stayman’s employment at the State Department. More specifically, Ms. Kladakis said she recalled talking with Ambassador Kelly about Mr. Stayman, and that the Ambassador was "very upset at the idea of us having Stayman leave, because there would be — it takes a while to find a replacement and clear them through, and he was — very strongly did not want us to ask him to leave after his term ended."108

Ms. Kladakis said it was "not common" for the Office of Presidential Personnel to stop an agency personnel action from going forward where an agency official was recommending a personnel action and the Office of Personnel Management had signed off on such action.109 She further testified that "very rarely" did the White House "either force someone on an assistant secretary or veto someone that the assistant secretary wanted,"110 and that involvement by lobbyists in OPP conversations about hiring and firing individuals was not common.111

Ms. Kladakis stated in her deposition that the White House in the Stayman matter was "caught between our assistant secretary and congressional Republicans," as there were Republican members of Congress who opposed the extension of Mr. Stayman’s tenure at the State Department.112 The documents the White House produced to the Committee show no evidence of congressional contacts with the White House on the Stayman matter until over a week after Ms. Kladakis’s June 20, 2001, report to Mr. Schlapp that the decision had been made to remove Mr. Stayman from State Department.113 The White House documents show that while some congressional Republicans opposed Mr. Stayman, other congressional Republicans supported Mr. Stayman.114

Ms. Kladakis also stated that the Bush Administration allowed a number of deputy-level Clinton Administration appointees to stay on "in order to have some continuity and to not completely destabilize the agency," but that "ultimately we planned to replace all of them with Bush appointees."115 In his deposition, Mr. Schlapp agreed that there was not a high volume of Clinton appointees who transitioned into the Bush Administration.116

Your government at work, once again. Diligently looking out for the interests of everyone rich and powerful enough to deserve being looked after. Can anyone read those passages and not think that they lend credibility to claims that Rove et. al. were instrumental in the Valerie Plame leak and the Don Siegelman prosecution and conviction?

The other piece of major news in the report is that the promised "thorough" investigation by the White House into its contacts with Abramoff was not only not thorough, it was essentially a sham, failing to even interview several of the White House officials who dealt most frequently and intimately with Abramoff.

Just curious: would direct lies about an administration's relationship with a lobbyist now convicted of serious crimes warrant impeachment? How about proof that the President's advisor and senior staff worked behind the scenes to fire a diligent, competent State Department official who was annoying one of the administration's money men?
Here's what the report has to say about that phony baloney investigation:
The investigation has also revealed that the White House conducted an inadequate and incomplete internal review before making public representations minimizing Mr. Abramoff’s access to White House officials. When Mr. Abramoff pleaded guilty, the White House spokesman responded that he had "checked" into Mr. Abramoff’s contacts with the President and White House staff and discovered that there "only a couple of holiday receptions that he attended, and then a few staff-level meetings on top of that." 201 After the Committee issued its first report raising more specific concerns about Mr. Abramoff and his team’s contact with White House officials, White House spokesman Tony Snow assured the public that the White House was conducting an internal investigation based on the allegations in the report, and that when the investigation was completed he would disclose the results publicly. 202 Four days later, the White House deputy press secretary explained that the "thorough" review had been completed, and had resulted in the resignation of Susan Ralston, an aide to Karl Rove. 203

However, the Committee’s investigation has revealed that before making these public statements, the White House never questioned five former White House officials who were key points of contact for the Abramoff team. For example, Mr. Schlapp, who testified that Mr. Abramoff was a resource for him and was known and respected at the White House while he was serving there, did not recall any consultation from White House officials before they made public statements about Mr. Abramoff’s minimal contacts with the White House.204 The White House also did not contact Ms. Kladakis in the weeks or months following Mr. Abramoff’s plea.205 In addition, neither Mr. Mehlman nor Mr. Barrales recalled being contacted by the White House after the Committee’s first report was issued. 206 Ms. Farley testified that she did not recall the White House ever reaching out to her to discuss her contact with Mr. Abramoff.207

This evidence suggests that the White House failed to conduct even the most basic internal investigation of the White House relationship with Mr. Abramoff before making public statements characterizing the connection between Mr. Abramoff and the White House.

I'm guessing that this internal investigation got the same level of effort and priority that went to finding out who outed Valerie Plame. They left no stone unturned as long as that stone appeared under their feet and said, in a loud stone-like voice, "Look Under MEEEE!!!!"

I'm sick of this President and his numberless thieves and cohorts....sick of reading about them, sick of talking about them, sick of writing about them and sick of living under their sleazy rule. And most of all, I'm sick of watching the consequences of their unique combination of corruption, incompetence & ideological zeal drag real live human beings through the mud, down into poverty, and into early graves or long term rehabilitation beds.