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WASHINGTON — As lobbyist Jack Abramoff sat silently in the witness chair last week, attempting to avoid self-incrimination by taking the Fifth, senators reached into the thesaurus to find insults strong enough to hurl at him. He was, in their words, a “scumbag,” “charlatan,” and “crook” who — along with public relations executive Michael Scanlon — had hoodwinked millions out of Native American clients and manipulated tribal elections for personal financial gain. But at Sept. 29′s Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, the law and lobbying firm where Abramoff was a senior director, Greenberg Traurig, escaped without a scratch. In fact, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went out of his way to praise the firm for cooperating fully with the committee’s investigation into Abramoff and Scanlon. And Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., portrayed the firm as a victim: “Credible law firms were taken advantage of,” Johnson said. But questions remain: How was a firm stacked with hundreds of legal and lobbying professionals unable to see what was going on with their flamboyant and controversial partner? And will Greenberg be able to use ignorance of Abramoff’s activities as a defense against investigations and possible litigation? Publicly, the firm’s lawyers will say only that they complied with Senate subpoenas and, according to a statement by the firm’s president and CEO, Miami-based Cesar Alvarez, are “honoring our ethical and professional obligations to our clients, and will continue to do so.” Privately, current and former Greenberg lobbyists and lawyers, as well as those who have had close working relationships with the firm, describe a firm culture where few direct questions were asked of Abramoff because of his rainmaking abilities. Abramoff’s practice brought in about $10 million a year, and without him, Greenberg’s D.C. lobbying revenues have tanked — dropping more than 48 percent in the first half of 2004, according to lobbying disclosure records. E-mails, checks and other documents released by the committee — many of them subpoenaed from Greenberg — show Abramoff and Scanlon collecting tens of millions of dollars and shuffling the money through a network of foundations and side businesses. The transactions, Senate investigators contend, were designed to blur just how much cash was being collected and where it was coming from. Greenberg insiders assert they had no idea about Abramoff’s potentially illegal activities. “He flat out lied to us,” says one former colleague of Abramoff. But Greenberg may not have an easy time distancing itself from the scandal and avoiding possible liability by painting itself as an unwitting victim of an errant employee. Abbe Lowell, the Chadbourne & Parke D.C. partner who is representing Abramoff, issued a statement late Friday that suggests a battle between Abramoff and his former firm may get nasty. “Mr. Abramoff’s lobbying work at Greenberg Traurig was part of that firm’s practice and something that was integrated in the firm,” according to a statement e-mailed to Recorder affiliate Legal Times by Chadbourne & Parke spokesman Andrew Blum and attributed to Lowell. “Mr. Abramoff always had outside business interests, about which all of the law firms for whom he worked were aware. After media reports began concerning investigations and hearings, Mr. Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig decided mutually that it would be too distracting for him to continue in his practice until the proceedings ended. That is why he no longer works at the firm.” Greenberg insiders also reveal they had strong misgivings about working with Scanlon and that some had refused to participate in a project when Scanlon was involved. Says one: “Jack knew how several of his colleagues felt about Scanlon, and so he would say he was going to a meeting.” Later, word would spread that Abramoff had been playing racquetball with Scanlon. When one Greenberg lobbyist, who had limited dealings with Scanlon, suggested that Greenberg bring Scanlon in for a PR matter, another lobbyist at the firm, more familiar with Abramoff and Scanlon, reportedly said, “If you use Scanlon, I won’t work on this.” Scanlon declined comment through his lawyer, Stephen Braga of the D.C. office of Baker Botts. Scanlon was not at the Sept. 29 hearing, having avoided senators’ efforts to have him subpoenaed. Braga says the subpoena was improperly served — he says it was faxed to his law office — and therefore not valid. Braga declined to comment on any of the allegations concerning Scanlon, citing a pending federal investigation into the matters. CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE Even without Scanlon, Abramoff cut a controversial figure. He jumped to Greenberg in 2000 from Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds as one of the best-known lobbyists in Washington. He had a multimillion-dollar book of business, ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and conservative credentials that stretched back to the Ronald Reagan years. In the 1980s, he also headed the International Freedom Foundation, a think tank that actively opposed Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa and had worked to help former Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko obtain a U.S. visa, according to Influence, a Recorder sister publication. Just a few months before joining Greenberg, Abramoff — along with two other investors — purchased SunCruz, a Florida company whose casino ships sailed into international waters to allow patrons to gamble. The venture was ill-fated. According to 2001 reports in The Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel in south Florida, the company was purchased from Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, a Miami entrepreneur, who later contested the sale and was shot to death in February 2001 in what police described as a gangland-style hit. A lawsuit filed by the Boulis estate revealed that as much as $250,000 had been paid by Adam Kidan, one of Abramoff’s fellow SunCruz investors, to reputed Gambino crime family figures in New York City. Kidan said the payments were to provide security for the boats and denied any wrongdoing. As lawsuits mounted, SunCruz declared bankruptcy, and Abramoff relinquished his 35 percent share in the company to the Boulis estate. Even with the news coverage and questions about Abramoff’s business dealings, Greenberg gave its new lobbyist little in the way of supervision, two former firm employees say. In one February 2003 e-mail exchange released by the Senate, then-Greenberg lobbyist Todd Boulanger provided a glimpse of the independence Abramoff had developed within the firm. “Haahahhhaah. I love how we all act: You[r] team . . . and the rest of greenberg [sic]. It’s gotta piss them off,” Boulanger wrote to Abramoff on Feb. 18, 2003. Boulanger, who is now with Cassidy & Associates, declined comment, other than to say through a Cassidy spokeswoman, “Greenberg Traurig is a great firm. I enjoyed my three-plus years there very much and maintain many close relationships with its professionals throughout the firm.” The e-mails between Abramoff and Scanlon alternate between hard-knuckled money discussions and locker room-style banter. In one e-mail, Abramoff writes to Scanlon, “I’m playing 11 a.m. rb [racquetball] bitch!” Scanlon writes back: “You Bitch! I have been playing a little as well. . .” Abramoff again: “I’m a fat pig, so resumption of the death matches will have to wait a while still.” Senators at the Indian Affairs hearing skewered Abramoff for e-mail descriptions of his Native American clients. Abramoff repeatedly referred to them as “monkeys,” “f’ing troglodytes,” and “idiots.” “I think the key thing to remember with all these clients is that they are annoying, but that the annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly,” Abramoff wrote in one March 2003 e-mail to Scanlon. Greenberg CEO Alvarez said in a statement that “what Jack did and said is antithetical to our way of doing business and the way we treat our clients . . . we are now conducting an internal investigation to help ensure it will not be repeated.” Insulting clients, current and former Greenberg lobbyists contend, was not common at the firm. But, they say, locker room talk is part of the culture of being a high-powered lobbyist at many D.C. firms. And one former colleague said that Abramoff was not using “monkey” as a racial epithet; he sometimes referred to white lobbyists and colleagues as “monkeys.” If the verbal swagger didn’t raise eyebrows, neither, say his former co-workers, did Abramoff’s seemingly endless supply of cash. He made large donations to charities and politicians, started two restaurants and a private school, and had other business ventures. At the time, it seemed to fit: Abramoff was a top-earning lobbyist with a seven-figure income, traveled in elite Republican circles, and was in the top tier of party fund-raisers. Plus, he was making a great deal of money for the firm, and Greenberg insiders say he was viewed as a darling of management by rank-and-file lawyers and lobbyists. In his three years at the firm, Abramoff built up an enviable client roster and a much-discussed penchant for charging unheard-of retainers. One lobbyist at a rival firm says, “There were often jokes of a sexual nature about what was Jack Abramoff really doing for these clients to charge such huge retainers.” A SHOCKED FIRM In February, Abramoff’s star plummeted. The Washington Post revealed that he and Scanlon had received at least $45 million from Indian tribes that operate casinos. On Feb. 27, according to a Greenberg Traurig statement, Abramoff “disclosed to the firm for the first time personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable to the firm.” On March 2, Abramoff resigned. Seven sources familiar with Greenberg say the content of the e-mails between Abramoff and Scanlon shocked the firm, and that partners decided to cooperate with the Senate investigation to the extent that it would not violate attorney-client privilege. (Abramoff is not an attorney.) The firm also hired Kevin Downey from Williams & Connolly as outside counsel and Henry Schuelke III of Janis, Schuelke & Wechsler to conduct an internal firm investigation. Greenberg’s Indian clients may sue. Henry Buffalo, a partner at St. Paul, Minn.’s Jacobson, Buffalo, Schoessler & Magnuson, represents the tribal council of the Saginaw Chippewas, a former Abramoff client. Buffalo says the council must vote on whether to pursue litigation against Abramoff and the firm. The tribe’s council has not yet voted, but Buffalo says, “I am fairly certain the tribe will be pursuing some kind of litigation.” Legal ethics specialists say that Abramoff’s clients at Greenberg Traurig were also clients of the firm. The firm may be waiting to finish its internal investigation before it decides how to proceed on potential lawsuits. Some insiders say the settlement process may have already begun with some clients. “In addition to the huge amount of money Greenberg Traurig is paying their outside counsel, they’re going to be refunding a lot of money to their clients,” says Brett Kappel, a partner in the D.C. office of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy who focuses on lobbying and legal ethics as well as campaign finance laws. On the other hand, Kappel says, “Greenberg Traurig will have very good grounds to recover a great deal of money from Mr. Abramoff himself. “I think one of the things Greenberg is doing here by cooperating, is trying to minimize their liability,” says Kappel. “Greenberg seems to be cooperating, and I think they will emerge from this as unscathed as possible after having one of their members commit such egregious acts against clients.” But, he adds, “A firm can be sued for malpractice, and violating the ethics rules may be grounds for malpractice. . . . This is going to be a classroom case study in a law school for years.” Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University, says that the competitive atmosphere at powerful law firms sometimes allows abuse to slip by unchecked. “Law firms are about making money,” Gillers says. “It’s hard to challenge the 900-pound gorilla.” When a D.C. law firm hires a nonlawyer employee with managerial authority, as Abramoff had, the partners “accept a certain level of responsibility for him,” Gillers says. Since Abramoff’s exit, Greenberg’s D.C. office has gone from one of the top five law firm lobbying practices in Washington to one whose reputation and revenues have been battered. The legislative center of gravity seems to be shifting back to Florida, where the firm’s roots are and where government practice leader Fred Baggett is based. Baggett could not be reached for comment. “With Jack [Abramoff] there,” says one lobbying practice head at a rival law firm, “there was a counterbalance. Greenberg’s D.C. operation doesn’t have that weight now. All of a sudden, with Jack’s departure, the Washington office is devoid of a top-line player in the firm. They don’t have someone who can throw around their weight with the management committee” like Abramoff was able to do. Still, many of Greenberg’s tribal clients are staying with the firm, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Sac Fox Nation Meskwaki Tribe. “Greenberg Traurig moved quickly and decisively to get Abramoff to resign and so we stayed with them,” says Tom Jochum, Sac Fox’s consultant. “Had they not done that, it’s unlikely that the tribe would have stayed.” Kate Ackley and Andy Metzger are reporters with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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