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Context of 'February 6-7, 2003: Lobbyist Accidentally Exposes White House Email System Used to Avoid Oversight'

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President Bush terminates an investigation into controversial Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff by firing the US Attorney supervising the investigation. A US grand jury in Guam has been investigating a secret arrangement between Abramoff and Superior Court officials to lobby against a court reform bill pending in Congress since February 2001 that would give the newly formed Guam Supreme Court authority over the Superior Court. The bill passed. Abramoff—a $750-an-hour lobbyist and former member of the Bush-Cheney transition team—was paid by a series of $9,000 checks, totaling $324,000, funneled through Laguna Beach, California, lawyer Howard Hills. The arrangement was designed to hide Abramoff’s role in working for the Guam court. On November 18, Acting US Attorney for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands Frederick A. Black issued a subpoena demanding that a Superior Court official turn over all records involving the lobbying contract, including bills and payments. (Black had already launched an investigation into the former governor of Guam, Carl Gutierrez, for diverting government funds for personal gain; Black apparently intended to tie the two investigations together.) However, today Black is abruptly demoted, with the White House issuing a statement announcing that it will name a replacement for him. Although Black is considered an “acting” US Attorney, he has held the post for over 10 years. Now he is demoted to an Assistant US Attorney and barred from continuing his investigations. Those investigations are now in limbo. In May 2003, Black will be replaced by Leonardo Rapadas without any Senate debate. Rapadas will be chosen for the job by Guam Republicans; lobbyist Fred Radewagen, who worked for the Gutierrez administration, will carry the recommendation to White House political chief Karl Rove in early 2003. (Radewagen has access to the top levels of the White House, including Rove.) Rapadas will quickly recuse himself from the Gutierrez investigation and the Abramoff grand jury will be dismissed. [Los Angeles Times, 8/8/2005; Nation, 2/2/2006] Later investigation will show that Gutierrez hired Abramoff in the spring of 2002 to help him force Black out of office. “I don’t care if they appoint [B]ozo the [C]lown, we need to get rid of Fred Black,” Abramoff wrote to colleagues in March 2002. Black began investigating Abramoff for the $324,000 contract Abramoff had received, and in return Abramoff asked for help from the Justice Department (DOJ). In turn, the DOJ forwarded the information to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. And, White House political director Ken Mehlman told White House official Leonard Rodriguez, a protege of Rove, to “reach out to make Jack [Abramoff] aware” of all Guam-related information, including people being considered to replace Black. “Abramoff claimed he had a top political guy at DOJ he could go to, to get rid of Black,” a source will tell reporter Ari Berman. In May 2002, Abramoff had a risk-assessment report of Guam and the neighboring Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) killed; the report, requested by Black, called for the federalizing of immigration laws on the islands, a rule change that would have slowed the influx of cheap labor to CNMI, as well as jeopardizing Abramoff’s $1.6 million contract with the local government. (In CNMI, workers are paid $3.05 an hour to make clothing branded “Made in the USA.”) Abramoff learned of the report from David Ayres, then the chief of staff for Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom Abramoff hosted at a Washington Redskins football game. Not only was the report quashed, its author, regional security specialist Robert Meissner, was demoted. Meissner later told people that he thought his boss at the time, Paul McNulty, the US Attorney for Eastern Virginia, “had everything to do with” suppressing the report. McNulty later became deputy attorney general. A colleague of Meissner’s will later say: “McNulty was kind of the fireman at Justice. He was the guy trying to run around and put a lid on things that could become political, especially with Abramoff.” Another element of the effort to rid Guam of Black was to paint him as a supporter of President Clinton, although he was appointed by the first President Bush, and Gutierrez himself was a Democrat. In November 2002, Black asked the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section (PIN) for help in investigating Abramoff’s lobbying activities. McNulty was forwarded the request, as was Gonzales. The DOJ offers no help to Black. Days later, after Black convenes a grand jury to look into Abramoff’s activities, Black is removed as US Attorney. “Fred was removed because he asked to indict Abramoff,” one of Black’s colleagues at Justice will later tell Berman. “I don’t believe it was a coincidence.” In June 2006, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will determine that nothing untoward occurred in the Black firing. However, the report will be based largely on information provided by the administration, including apparently misleading testimony from Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Gonzales, who had by that time become attorney general. Rapadas was only chosen to replace Black after Black had launched his probe into Abramoff’s doings. David Sablan, who headed the Guam Republican Party at the time, will say in 2007, “I just wonder whether they wanted to prevent Fred Black from staying on.” The OIG report will indicate that Sampson discussed the US Attorney candidate for Guam and other posts with President Bush, a statement Bush will later disavow. [Nation, 2/2/2006; Nation, 4/16/2007]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Ken Mehlman, Karl C. Rove, Leonardo Rapadas, Public Integrity Section, Paul J. McNulty, Robert Meissner, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), Howard Hills, Jack Abramoff, George W. Bush, Clinton administration, Carl Gutierrez, Guam Supreme Court, D. Kyle Sampson, David Ayres, David Sablan, Alberto R. Gonzales, Frederick A. Black, Fred Radewagen, Ari Berman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff sends an email to White House aide Susan Ralston, a former Abramoff associate who now works in the White House Office of Political Affairs (OPA) under Karl Rove. Abramoff wants Ralston to tell Rove to covertly use his position in the White House to prevent a Louisiana Indian tribe from acquiring land for a casino. (The land acquisition would threaten the interests of an Abramoff client, a different Indian tribe that already has gaming establishments in the area.) Abramoff asks if Rove can give “some quiet message from the WH [White House] that this is absurd.” Ralston agrees, and Abramoff sends her a thank-you reply. But instead of sending the reply to Ralston’s private email account administered by the Republican National Committee (RNC) at sralston@georgewbush.com, he sends it to her official White House email account. The next day, Abramoff’s colleague Kevin Ring alerts Abramoff to the error. Ring writes, “She said it is better to not put this stuff in writing in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff responds: “Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc [Republican National Committee] pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system.” The email will be publicly revealed as part of a Congressional investigation into Abramoff’s criminal enterprises. In 2007, documents will connect this email exchange to thousands of other private emails sent to and from White House officials using the georgewbush.com, gwb43.com, rnchq.com, and other private email domains. Ralston is one of many White House officials to use these outside accounts to communicate with Abramoff and others. Federal law requires that all emails and other communications be preserved as part of the National Archives data storage, for future review. Using private email accounts such as those provided by the RNC, especially for official (and quasi-official) government business, is also a violation of the Presidential Records Law. In March 2007, the House Oversight Committee’s chairman, Henry Waxman (D-CA), will demand that the RNC preserve all White House emails “because of their potential relevance to Congressional investigations.… The email exchanges reviewed by the committee provide evidence that in some instances, White House officials were using the nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications.” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists will say that the use of the RNC email accounts also “shows how closely intertwined the White House is with its partisan allies. The fact that the White House and the RNC are working hand in hand and White House officials are using RNC emails is itself remarkable.” Aftergood recalls the Iran-Contra investigation, where incriminating White House emails were recovered even after officials believed they had been deleted. “People may have learned that lesson,” Aftergood will muse. Since the Iran-Contra investigation, both the first Bush administration and Clinton administration have had issues with suppressing and hiding emails. Steven Hensen, a past president of the Society of American Archivists, will say that the current Bush email practice “clearly looks like an attempt to conceal official business.” Mother Jones reporter Daniel Schulman will agree, writing that “it’s clear that others are taking pains to use alternate email accounts simply to keep their communications from becoming public record.” [Mother Jones, 3/30/2007; Los Angeles Times, 4/9/2007]

Entity Tags: Jack Abramoff, White House Office of Political Affairs, Bush administration (43), Henry A. Waxman, Steven Hensen, Susan Ralston, Daniel Schulman, Karl C. Rove, Kevin Ring, Steven Aftergood, Republican National Committee, National Archives and Records Administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Susan Ralston and Israel Hernandez, two aides to White House political strategist Karl Rove, testify before the grand jury investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak. Ralston still works for Rove, while Hernandez has moved to the Commerce Department. Both are asked about the testimony given by reporter Matthew Cooper (see July 13, 2005), who told the grand jury of the conversation he had with Rove concerning Valerie Plame Wilson’s CIA identity (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003). Both aides are asked why Cooper’s call was not entered in Rove’s office telephone logs; Ralston says that the call was not logged because Cooper did not call Rove directly, but was transferred from the White House switchboard. [New York Times, 8/3/2005; Washington Post, 10/7/2005]

Entity Tags: Karl C. Rove, Israel Hernandez, Matthew Cooper, Susan Ralston

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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