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Monday, March 13, 2006 

Gale Norton's Connection to Jack Abramoff

Recently, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, announced her resignation and will be leaving the Interior Department at the of the month (Norton's resignation letter). Norton will be leaving with a controversial record which includes clashes with environmentalists and American Indian groups. While, at the same time receiving praises from the oil industry.
Ms. Norton, who turns 52 on Saturday, has been on the job for five years and was at the nexus of many controversies, including drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sensitive areas, administration of the Endangered Species Act, handling of trust money for Indian tribes, and collection of royalties due the federal government for natural gas drilling on public lands.
As interior secretary she was in charge over the department that is currently being investigated for possible ties to the corruption scandal involving Jack Abramoff. Even though her Department is currently being investigated, Norton denies that the investigation played a role in her resignation, claiming that she just wanted "to return to having a private life again."

(more below the fold)

Jack Abramoff, Norton and Department of Inferior

Norton's problems began in 2005 when her name was mentioned during Abramoff's investigation. And it now looks like the noose is getting tighter for her this year.

Earlier this year, White House officials tried to put some distance themselves from Jack Abramoff. So obvious, Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, said "The President does not know him, nor does the President recall ever meeting him." In mid-January, Time dropped a bombshell on the White House when they disclosed they had five photos of Abramoff and Dubya together. There, the White House tried spinning the pictures as a mere coincidence because the pictures in question were taken at a "Christmas-party line, where the President poses with hundreds of people." And in a press conference held in January, Dudya told reporters "You know, I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him."

In February, Time published the pictures in question. McClellan claimed the White House had "no record" told told TIME:
The President has taken countless, 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 [of Abramoff].
Considering the White House has aggressively downplayed the situation, one has to wonder, how close is the relationship between Dubya and Jack Abramoff? In addition to the photos, it was previously reported in the Texas Observer that Jack Abramoff was member of the Bush Administration's 2001 Transition Advisory Team. The Observer wrote:
He had just concluded his work on the Bush Transition Team as an advisor to the Department of the Interior. He had sent his personal assistant Susan Ralston to the White House to work as Rove's personal assistant. He was a close friend, advisor, and high-dollar fundraiser for the most powerful man in Congress, Tom DeLay.
In May 2005, USA Today reported:
...documents show [Abramoff's] team also had extensive access to Bush administration officials, meeting with Cheney policy advisers Ron Christie and Stephen Ruhlen, Ashcroft at the Justice Department, White House intergovernmental affairs chief Ruben Barrales, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles and others.

Most of the contacts were handled by Abramoff's subordinates, who then reported back to him on the meetings. Abramoff met several times personally with top Interior officials, whose Office of Insular Affairs oversees the Mariana Islands and other U.S. territories.

Recently released e-mails by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee show that Abramoff began his involvement with the Interior Department since day one of the BushCo Administration. Abramoff's main contact in the Interior Department was Italia Federici, a former political aide to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and current president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA).

On January 30, 2001,- the same day Interior Secretary Gale Norton was confirmed by the Senate - Abramoff wrote Federici (click here for image):

Thanks of much Italia. Please let me know what I can do to help Dennis Stephens, Mark Zachares (Office of Insular Affairs) and Tim Martin (Bureau of Indian Affairs) be placed. Look forward to hearing form you regarding CREA. Regards.
According to USA Today, Coalition of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) was founded in 1999 by Secretary Norton, Federici and Grover Norquist.
Federici helped Norton raise money for an unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in Colorado and she, Norquist and Norton formed CREA in 1999 as a tax-exempt organization highlighting Republican ideas for the environment.
As expected, Federici denies any wrongdoing, however, her emails between her and Abramoff paint a different picture.

In a March 1, 2001 email, Federici invited Abramoff to a "small cocktail party" so he could meet Secretary Norton. Federici also mentions the outcome of the first meeting between Abramoff and Griles and how Griles was pleased with Abramoff's "advice" on BIA. She also told Abramoff "You definitely made another friend." Abramoff replied excited about the invitation and offered to help out on the cost of the party.

According to the Department of Interior, Deputy Secretary Steven Griles oversaw two of the bureaus Abramoff had his eyes on, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Insular Affairs.
The Deputy Secretary is second in command in the Department and has policy and administrative responsibility for assisting the Secretary in managing the Department's eight bureaus: the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Minerals Management Service, Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation and the Office of Insular Affairs.
On the same day, Federici sends seris of emails to an unidentified person letting them know Abramoff has requested an invoice. Also on the same day in another email, Abramoff asked Federici for a favor, Abramoff wanted to know if Secretary Norton or Griles could help out one of his clients. One can assume the name crossed out is Secretary Norton because one of those emails Federici notifies the person whos name is crossed out that "Steve" has taken care of the "matter."

In the same month, a fax was sent from Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof, the LA Coushattas' attorney, requesting a payment of $50,000 to "pay 1/2 the cost of a poll conducted by the Council for Republican Environmental Advocacy, which is being conducted on behalf of Gayle Norton, Secretary of Interior." Interestingly, in May 2001, CREA provided the Interior Department the findings from their focus groups. The findings "suggests how to talk about energy issues, emphasizes using rising gas prices to promote increased drilling" - according to documents obtained by the National Resources Defense Council.
The research concludes, "language that . . . emphasizes price increases in gasoline and natural gas and the California situation resonates with voters." Another finding: "Gasoline price stability is the single most potent argument for opening up ANWR."
Additional emails provide evidence Norton and Griles were also involved with Abramoff in bilking the Native Americans. Abramoff and his associated often describe Griles as "Our guy." In an email exchange between Todd Boulanger, of Cassidy and Associates Inc and Abramoff, the emails indicate the funds were used so tribal leaders could meet Norton face-to-face at one of Norton's "dinner of the trustees." Abramoff explained to Boulanger that each tribe contributes $50,000 to Norton's organization CREA, which "she supports still."
Abramoff Arranged A White House Meeting With Bush And Administration Officials For Indian Leaders. In the summer of 2001, Abramoff arranged a meeting between Bush and top Indian leaders to discuss tax issues. Among the attendees was one of Abramoff's biggest clients, Lovelin Poncho, chairman of the Coushattas. Abramoff also invited the Coushattas and other tribal clients to a fall 2001 dinner party attended by Interior Secretary Gale Norton. [National Journal, 4/20/02]
So did Norton resign because the Abramoff scandal noose was getting tighter? Maybe so, but that really is besides the point. History is filled with many examples how people can be easily fooled by smooth talking snake-oil salesmen like P.T. Barnum. Barnum is often credited with the quote "There's a sucker born every minute," a motto Jack Abramoff evidently lives by. Greed does not even comes close to describing Abramoff's motive and those who participated this criminal act and this will go down in history as one of sadest period in US history. No matter how much Secretary Norton denies her involvement, the evidence proves otherwise. And like the popular Nigerian email scam, she was as much a part of Abramoff scam that bilked the Native Americas.

Update On Abramoff's "Placed" People
Dennis Stephens, is currently employed in Abramoff's old employer Preston Gates & Ellis LLP and serves has their government affairs counselor. According to the agency's profile, Stephens has worked as a legislative assistant for Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) and as the legislative director for Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA)and Rep. Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Mark Zachares currently serves as a legislative assistant for Rep Don Young (R-AK). Last year, the Los Angeles Times wrote Mark Zachares had joined Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) on a trip to Scotland that was also paid by Abramoff. The Times also mentioned.
Zachares, now a top staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, once served as a labor and immigration official in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Abramoff represented the territory and its apparel manufacturers at the time.
Tim Martin was not given the BIA position, however, he did serve as the Executive Director, United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc (USET) who also sat on The Tribal Leaders/ Department of the Interior Trust Reform Task Force. USET's web site states:
United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc's is a non-profit, inter-tribal organization that collectively represents its member Tribes at the regional and national level. USET has grown to include twenty-four federally recognized Tribes, operating through various workgroups and committees and providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and information amongst Tribes, agencies and governments.
USET includes several of Abramoff's clients Cherokee, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. The purpose of the Tribal Leaders/ Department of the Interior Trust Reform Task Force was to "bring the tribal leaders and Interior officials together to repair the way tribal members' trust fund accounts are handled."

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