Did controversial super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff create a popular Washington restaurant just to make friends and influence people? Signatures, his gourmet trattoria on Pennsylvania Avenue, was renowned as a high-class feeding trough for politicians. Indeed, as Capitol Hill circulates a purported comp list from Signatures that includes eight Congressmen, TIME has obtained an e-mail showing that Abramoff offered a complimentary meal to a longtime ally who, like him, is in a lot of ethical hot water these days. His message, headed "Tom and Christine DeLay" and addressed to restaurant staff, is dated May 2, 2002, when Tom was House majority whip, and requests that a table be set for six and the meal "comped."
"We can find no record that this meal took place," a DeLay representative told TIME. "All restaurants comp patrons, and Signatures is no different," says a spokesman for Abramoff. Reps for both men note that House rules allow old friends to pick up dinner tabs. Confidential financial records examined by TIME show that Abramoff's eatery gave out meals worth only about 7% of its revenues--just above the national average of about 5%. But because his lobbying drew FBI and congressional scrutiny earlier this year, patrons have stayed away. As a result, restaurant-industry sources tell TIME, Abramoff is close to inking a deal to sell his once profitable restaurant to--surprise!--more Washington bigwigs.