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No one mistook Jack Abramoff for just another lobbyist at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds. His ultraconservative politics clashed with those of lawyers in the Seattle-based firm’s home office. He entertained lawmakers in luxury boxes at Washington’s MCI Center and at Baltimore’s PSINet Stadium and seemed to court publicity. And then there was the money. While other lobbyists had a dozen or more clients and netted a modest six figures in fees, Abramoff worked on a handful of clients and racked up $3 million to $4 million a year for the firm. Abramoff left Preston Gates four years ago. But he’s still a big presence � and problem � for the firm’s management. In recent months, reports have surfaced of Abramoff’s questionable financing of travel for lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). All of the spending at issue occurred during Abramoff’s tenure at Preston Gates. Interviews with former colleagues and Preston Gates insiders reveal how Abramoff operated within the firm. Lobbyists who worked at Preston Gates during Abramoff’s stint describe an atmosphere in which Abramoff received little supervision, and, by virtue of his rainmaking ability, his clout often exceeded that of his bosses. “Jack had so much business that he was his own animal,” says one lobbyist who worked with Abramoff at Preston Gates and later at Greenberg Traurig. Preston Gates, as a firm, and the managing partners individually, declined to comment about Abramoff’s tenure at the firm. Interviews for this story were conducted with three former Preston Gates lobbyists who worked closely with Abramoff and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Abramoff, through a spokesperson, declined to answer questions about his time at Preston Gates. ODD COUPLE Abramoff joined the firm in 1995. Given the firm’s generally Democratic roots, it was an odd fit from the beginning, the former lobbyists say. But as a business move, it proved to be a winner. The GOP had just gained control of Congress, and firms like Preston Gates were looking to hold on to their clout. The gamble on Abramoff was to pay off. Lobbying Disclosure Act filings show that Abramoff’s $3 million to $4 million book of business made up anywhere from 20 percent to one-third of Preston Gates’ lobbying revenue, depending on the year. For most of his tenure at Preston Gates, Abramoff’s work was limited to five clients with enormous retainers: the government of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a Puerto Rican pro-statehood group, Court TV, education television station Channel One, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. In 1998 and 1999 (the only two years for which complete public records are available), the five clients paid Preston Gates $8 million in fees. The Mississippi Choctaw alone were billed for more than $4.5 million for the two years. “He was one of the hottest rainmakers in Washington,” says one of the former Preston lobbyists. “People are going to respect, admire, encourage that behavior that brings money into the company.” Abramoff’s fees far eclipsed those brought in by name partners Emanuel Rouvelas and Lloyd Meeds. His compensation reflected this fact. According to lobbyists who worked at Preston Gates at the time, Abramoff’s salary and bonuses topped $1 million, and he was provided with a car and driver, a perk, noted one of the lobbyists, also enjoyed by managing partner Rouvelas. Competitors took notice. “They were a regionally based practice and that was their reputation. [Abramoff] certainly boosted their profile,” says Rich Gold, who heads Holland & Knight’s lobby practice. But the firm also seemed wary of its star. It never gave Abramoff a top management role. Abramoff, says the former Preston Gates lobbyist, “was on the second rung” of decision-makers at the firm. And however enticing Abramoff’s multimillion-dollar fees were to the firm, Abramoff rankled Seattle management, the ex-lobbyists say. The chief concern was his client roster. Preston Gates’ biggest law clients were Northwest tech companies, most notably Microsoft Corp. Abramoff’s clients were quite different. He lobbied for exemptions to labor and minimum-wage laws for the Northern Marianas and for the expansion of Indian gaming for the Mississippi Choctaw. Thomas Allison, a retired Seattle partner, says that at headquarters “there were people who absolutely didn’t share [Abramoff's] political views, especially on the Fair Labor Standards Act,” the legislation Abramoff lobbied against for the Northern Marianas. The firm also faced criticism for Abramoff’s lobby work. The Seattle Times ran a series on Abramoff’s lobbying for the Northern Marianas in March 1998. One article ran with a sidebar headlined “Strategy: Stack Public Hearings, Attack Critics, Provide Free Trips.” “Jack and his ultraconservatism made [Seattle management] very uneasy,” says one of the former lobbyists. Fewer questions were raised about Abramoff’s spending on travel. Abramoff spent thousands to send lawmakers on junkets to Pacific islands and to Europe, according to receipts and reports published in The Washington Post and National Journal, among other publications. But lobbyists say that Preston Gates’ D.C. management was not likely to have been consulted about the trips, either before or after they took place. One of the former lobbyists says that those who worked with Abramoff assumed that the firm billed its clients for the trips’ costs. The most controversial trip was one that Abramoff arranged for DeLay in 2000, when they traveled to Scotland. The Washington Post reported in April that Preston Gates was listed on the invoice for DeLay’s airfare. The firm, however, denies that it paid for, or billed clients for, any part of the trip. Preston Gates would not answer questions about other trips Abramoff arranged for lawmakers. GOING TO GREENBERG Abramoff exited the firm in December 2000 for Greenberg Traurig. He took with him five lobbyists, all his clients, and a good chunk of Preston Gates’ lobby fees. The departures made the firm angry enough to deny year-end bonuses to several lobbyists who departed with Abramoff. According to the lobbyists who worked with Abramoff, his decision to leave Preston Gates was based on the pressure that he was receiving from Seattle management. “You had to run your potential clients up the flagpole into Seattle,” says one. Another adds, “He wanted to go to a firm that was more aggressive” in courting controversial clients, such as the Indian tribes with large casino operations that Abramoff later built his practice around. After Abramoff’s departure, Preston Gates’ lobby revenues dropped 20 percent. Today, the firm’s lobby practice is roughly half of what it was during Abramoff’s days: In 2004, Preston Gates collected $7.7 million in lobby fees, according to Lobbying Disclosure Act records. Not everyone at Preston Gates’ Washington office was upset to see him go. One D.C. senior partner told Influence in December 2000, “We’re not as comfortable in the spotlight as he was.” But the spotlight is back. And so far the firm has remained mum about the controversy. It’s not clear how the firm figures into the many official investigations into Abramoff’s business affairs, but the firm said it would cooperate with any investigative body. Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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