Just how close was the relationship between the President and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff? Bush "saw me in almost a dozen settings," Abramoff wrote to a journalist friend in an e-mail that surfaced last week, "and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids." But the White House has continued to assert that the President has no recollection of ever meeting the admitted felon. Now a photograph of them together has finally come to light. The photo, taken on May 9, 2001, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, shows a bearded Abramoff in the background as Bush greets the lobbyist's client, Raul Garza, who was then the chairman of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas; Bush senior adviser Karl Rove looks on from the far right of the frame. Told about the photograph in January, the White House said it had no record that Abramoff was present at the 2001 meeting. When shown the photograph last weekend, White House press secretary Scott McClellan confirmed that Abramoff was in the picture but added that "the President has taken tens of thousands of pictures at home and abroad over the last five years. As we've said previously, a photo like this has no relevance to the Justice Department's investigation [into influence peddling in Washington]."
The meeting was a relatively small gathering attended by some two dozen people, including Garza--who provided TIME with the photograph and who is under federal indictment for allegedly embezzling more than $300,000 from his tribe--as well as another Indian tribal leader who was also Abramoff's client. Abramoff has told friends that "after the [Garza] picture was taken, the President came over and shook hands with me, and we chatted and joked." A photograph of this scene as described by Abramoff was shown to TIME two weeks ago. Abramoff's lawyers have said their client has long had photographs of himself with Bush but that he has no intention of releasing them.
Benigno Fitial, Governor of the Northern Mariana Islands and a former Abramoff client who also attended the 2001 meeting, told TIME that he recalled the President as being "very gracious" at the session, during which Bush gave a short speech on tax policy. "He knew quite a few of the people in the room," Fitial said of the President. "He called them by their first name."