There was only one reason that clients ranging from Native-American tribes to Fortune 500 CEOs to Pacific Island potentates were willing to pay Jack Abramoff millions. The lobbyist at the center of a spreading scandal that has touched numerous lawmakers, including former House majority leader Tom DeLay, had access like few others to people in power. But in the place that mattered most, even someone as well-connected as Abramoff needed help. When he had to make sure his clients' concerns got the attention of the right people in the George W. Bush White House, Abramoff often turned to a longtime friend and business associate whose ties there--especially with the President's most trusted adviser, Karl Rove--were far better than his: former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, an operative of such political talent that he made the cover of TIME in 1995, at age 33, with a line that declared him "the Right Hand of God."
Reed, a key Bush campaign strategist and the favorite in the 2006 race to become Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, was an obliging, even eager middleman, judging by e-mail exchanges between the two, which have been obtained by TIME. (The e-mails have attracted the interest of federal investigators already looking into whether Abramoff defrauded his Indian clients--a charge he denies.) Ten days after 9/11, for instance, Abramoff was promoting a business venture to rent cruise ships to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to billet rescue workers off New York City. Reed assured Abramoff he had "put in a tag call to karl to find out the best contact at fema." Four months later, Abramoff wrote Reed that he needed some "serious swat from Karl" to get the Justice Department to free $16.3 million for a jail that his Choctaw Indian clients were planning to build in Mississippi. As it happened, Abramoff had caught Reed at a ripe moment. "Am at a lunch with Rove at the [Republican National Committee] meeting and just talked to the AG [then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. Senator]," he e-mailed Abramoff on his BlackBerry. "Will report the substance shortly." Reed agreed to give Rove materials arguing the Choctaws' case.
Did he? Or was Reed humoring his old friend? "Ralph receives unsolicited requests all the time for assistance on such matters," says his spokeswoman Lisa Baron, "but he does not recall following up on these matters." The cruise-ship scheme never came to fruition. The Choctaws got their jail, but so far, there's no evidence that the White House lifted a finger to make it happen. Abramoff declined to comment.