Since he emerged as a leading character in the controversy over House majority leader Tom DeLay's ethical standards, Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been famously tight-lipped. A central issue is whether some of DeLay's overseas travel was funded, at least indirectly, by Abramoff, in violation of House rules barring legislators from accepting travel paid for by lobbyists. Abramoff, 46, an orthodox Jew who espouses conservative values, was already under investigation by two congressional committees and the FBI for allegedly bilking his Indian-tribe clients and possibly abusing tax exemptions on charities he set up. Abramoff spoke to TIME'S Adam Zagorin about the questions swirling around him. Excerpts from their conversation, conducted by phone and e-mail:
TIME Tom DeLay has called you one of his "closest friends." Do you consider him a close friend?
ABRAMOFF I do.
TIME Did you get too close to DeLay?
ABRAMOFF No. Tom DeLay is a dedicated public servant. I was drawn to Tom because of our shared interest in the Bible and like political philosophies. He's a man fortunate enough to have a loving and devoted wife who shares his faith and philosophy.
TIME There is evidence that you paid for DeLay's travel. What is your explanation for this apparent violation of House rules?
ABRAMOFF I did not base my lobbying on the stereotypical Washington image that lobbyists provide little more than a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge"--or gifts and gratuities. In my view, no worthy members of Congress or their staff would ever change their position on an issue based on anything other than their constituents' interests or their own deeply held views. My lobbying efforts were focused on presenting my clients' causes in a way which was consistent with the philosophy of my friends on Capitol Hill. That's why I had such a record of success--not because anyone received gifts or traveled with me. As for the travel, like virtually every lobbyist in modern times, I've traveled with members of Congress and staff. Lobbyists will travel with a member or staff because their presence will help the educational value of a trip. Oftentimes, the lobbyist is a personal friend, though, and will travel in the same way that any friend will join another friend. Media attempts at endowing innocent congressional travel with nefarious intrigue sadly typify what has happened in this story.
TIME Whose idea was the trip DeLay took to Scotland and London? How did you come to make some of the travel arrangements and pay some of the bills?
ABRAMOFF It's hard to remember the details of trips which occurred five or more years ago. The trip to the U.K. was sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, on whose board I then sat. Having the most powerful member of Congress meet with one of the three greatest leaders of the 20th century--Lady [Margaret] Thatcher--was a worthy activity. As to the logistical details, I don't recall the arrangements, but I'm certain that everything was done with the intent of adhering to the law. I participated in many trips involving Congressmen, their staffs and other policymakers over the years. Trips are an essential way for members of Congress and others to get firsthand knowledge of important issues and regions around the world.
TIME What did the side trip to golf in Scotland have to do with that?