At this stage, it's not easy to make Jack Abramoff's reputation worse. The Washington superlobbyist has been caught, in his e-mails, calling his Indian tribal clients "monkeys" and "morons." It has been made clear, in congressional hearings, that he charged the tribes outlandish fees and got them to make donations that underwrote his lifestyle, his kids' education and the luxury travel of his favorite politician. But for those who were recipients of the largesse that Abramoff could afford with his clients' money, exposure is a frightening prospect. House majority leader Tom DeLay, that luxury traveler, has already been burned by his association with Abramoff. The latest disclosures about the lobbyist's methods have dusted up two more Republican notables: antitax activist Grover Norquist and Christian conservative Ralph Reed. Their names came up in the thousands of e-mails released last week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is investigating Abramoff. The fact that Abramoff-controlled tribal money found its way to the highest levels of conservative power in the country is making a lot of people in Washington nervous. "If you painted that money purple, there'd be a lot of purple pockets around town," says Senator Byron Dorgan, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The spreading scandal is a particular concern to Republicans in light of next year's midterm elections. Abramoff's name has become associated in Washington with more than just typical lobbying excess. He is an intimate of the self-described revolutionaries who took power on the Hill in 1994 on promises of cleaning house after decades of Democratic control and, as such, is seen as the personification of the Republican revolution gone awry. It doesn't help that the Indian tribal money that made Abramoff so influential around town came mostly from profits from gambling, which many conservatives view as immoral. Some Republicans are even arguing that the party should distance itself from those tied too closely to Abramoff. "If someone within your family is doing something that's certainly wrong, if not illegal, you have a duty to say, That's not us," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "That's what people are saying."
Last week's e-mail dump was the first detailed look the public has got into how Abramoff combined his top-tier connections with vast sums of money from his tribal clients to advance his interests. It shows how easy it is for seasoned operators to violate the spirit of the law--possibly while staying within the letter of it--as they peddle influence. The correspondence also lays bare that, of the $7.7 million Abramoff and fellow lobbyist Michael Scanlon charged the Choctaw for projects in 2001, they spent $1.2 million for their efforts and split the rest in a scheme they called "gimme five." Most of all, it shines a bright light into the dark places of Washington where money, politics and lobbyists meet.