The Miami Herald
Posted on Thu, May. 18, 2006
MIAMI HERALD EXCLUSIVE | U.S. SENATE
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who returned a $2,500 donation he believes was tied to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is not giving up $250,000 raised at an Abramoff-led event.
BY DAN CHRISTENSEN
When U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez shed $2,500 in January that his campaign took from an Ohio congressman tied to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a spokeswoman said the Florida senator wanted no contributions with ``even a hint of impropriety.''
But Martinez continues to hold on to $250,000 that his 2004 campaign collected at a Washington kickoff fundraiser that was co-chaired and attended by the now disgraced lobbyist.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January in Miami and Washington to a variety of fraud, tax and corruption charges.
The $1,000-per-person reception at the Ronald Reagan Republican Center was held Feb. 10, 2004 -- two months after Martinez stepped down as President Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
At the time, Martinez told The Miami Herald he didn't recognize any lobbyists in attendance who had done business at HUD.
But U.S. Senate lobbyist disclosure records show that Abramoff was registered to lobby at HUD for the Michigan-based Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe during much of Martinez's tenure. The Chippewas are among more than a half-dozen tribes Abramoff has admitted to bilking out of millions of dollars in bogus fees.
The fundraiser, and Abramoff's prominent role in it, was widely reported at the time. This week, though, Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg said the senator would keep the $250,000 because ``it has nothing to do with Jack Abramoff.''
''His name might have been on some list, but he did not host the fundraiser for the senator and he did not write the senator a check. He didn't do anything for the senator at that fundraiser,'' he said.
But University of Virginia political science Professor Larry Sabato said co-chairs play a paramount role.
''Co-chairs are really the ones responsible for the success of meeting the [dollar] target,'' Sabato said. ``Almost certainly, [Abramoff] has raised money for that individual and has probably gotten other people to give, too.''
News accounts at the time said the fundraiser attracted a dozen Republican senators, along with key Republican supporters like Abramoff and fellow co-chairs Scott Reed, a former Bob Dole campaign manager, and lobbyist Dan Murphy, Martinez's former chief of staff.
Reed said this week he believed Abramoff had little to do with the fundraiser. Murphy declined to comment publicly.
The pots of HUD money that Abramoff sought to tap for the tribe, if any, aren't identified in the Senate records. A department spokesman, however, said that from 2002 to 2004, HUD awarded the casino-wealthy tribe about $4 million, including $400,000 earmarked in 2003 for facilities for a crime-victim program.
Through a spokesman, Abramoff declined to comment about his lobbying efforts at HUD. A HUD spokeswoman said the department was unaware of any lobbying there by Abramoff or his former associates at the Miami-based Greenberg Traurig law firm. Lundberg said Martinez may have met Abramoff once in Orlando during the campaign, ''but that was it.'' He said Martinez never met Abramoff while heading HUD or as a senator.
Court papers filed last week by federal prosecutors in Washington said Abramoff enlisted U.S. Rep. Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican, in a January 2003 effort ''to influence the decisions and actions'' of then-HUD Secretary Martinez. At the time, Ney was the incoming chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees HUD.
The statement made no allegation that Martinez did anything improper. Ney has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.
Still, Ney is among a number of lawmakers under scrutiny in the Abramoff scandal.
Ney's notoriety peaked in January with Abramoff's admission to crimes that included allegedly bribing Ney with gifts and cash. The outcry prompted Martinez to give the $2,500 he received from Ney's political action committee in 2004 to charity.
''The senator wants to make it crystal clear to his constituents that he is not interested in any campaign donations that have even a hint of impropriety in this matter,'' Martinez spokeswoman Kerry Feehery told The Miami Herald on Jan. 13.
Ney, Martinez and Abramoff were linked publicly again on May 9 when Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, pleaded guilty to corruption conspiracy.
Like Abramoff, Volz also implicated Ney in corruption.
Volz, who quit Ney's staff in February 2002 to join Abramoff's lobbying team, said in a statement filed with the court that Ney met with Martinez in early 2003. Ney's purpose was ''to assist Abramoff's clients'' by telling Martinez that Ney's upcoming priorities would include ''housing for Native Americans,'' it read.
How the Ney-Martinez meeting was intended to help any of Abramoff's Indian clients was not made clear. But Senate records show that only one tribe -- the Saginaw Chippewas -- retained Abramoff to lobby HUD.
Martinez said last week that he did not recall the meeting, but added, ``I assure you we did not do anything special or specific as a result of any request like that.''
A spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewas declined to discuss Abramoff's work for the tribe. Kersten Norlin, a spokeswoman for Greenberg Traurig, would not comment on Abramoff or disclose the terms of the firm's settlement with the tribe.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.