BRIAN LAMB, CSPAN: Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post, what are your most important stories that you‘ve been involved with since you‘ve been at the Post.
SUSAN SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON POST STAFF WRITER: Well, probably one of the most is the one I‘m working on right now, the lobbying scandal in Washington involving Jack Abramoff and his team of lobbyists and their work with House Republicans and others on Capitol Hill. And that‘s one of the biggest stories. I‘ve been working on that for more than two years.
And another big one was, of course, the Whitewater investigation when went on for, believe it or not, six year; and the Monica Lewinsky investigation launched by Ken Starr. So those are the biggest things and they‘ve taken up probably the past 10 years of my life.
LAMB: On the Abramoff story, can you remember the first time that you heard about him and what it made you do as a journalist?
SCHMIDT: I do, actually. I got a call in the fall of 2003 from a lobbyist – and I can‘t really say who that person is but it was someone who I knew of and a respected person. And he said, you know, you ought to look into this. This guy is a big lobbyist on K Street and he‘s somehow taking away other people‘s clients and charging them 10, 20 times more than what they were paying before – these Indian tribes who have become wealthy on casino profits.
And, you know, the amount of money he was talking about, you know, was millions of dollars. And that got me interested.
Then he mentioned that there was a guy who had left the Hill, Mike Scanlon, who had worked for Tom DeLay as a press aide and that he was somehow working with Abramoff or that they were, you know, tied together and he was doing work for tribes, too.
So because of it was a very persuasive phone call and that I got launched that way. And I started talking to other people who did tribal lobbying and I was getting the same kind of story from those people, he was stealing people‘s clients, Abramoff was taking people‘s clients and they were sort of baffled by how he was managing to do this. But they did – they did know that he was getting involved in internal tribal elections – which outsiders are not allowed to do – and pumping money into those elections.
LAMB: What year was this?
SCHMIDT: This was the fall of 2003 so this is some time back.
LAMB: Had you ever heard of him before that?
SCHMIDT: No, I hadn‘t.
LAMB: And what was your job at that point and where did you sit in all that over at the Washington Post?
SCHMIDT: I was on the national staff. I was covering Justice Department, terrorism, FBI issues, doing a lot of actually terrorism reporting at that point.
LAMB: So it‘s late 2003, when did you write the first article?
SCHMIDT: February 2004.
LAMB: And how did that fit into the national story? Were you the first person to write anything about this?
SCHMIDT: There was a paper in Louisiana that covered one of the tribes that Abramoff represented and they had written some stuff – very contentious internal tribal, you know, politics down there. And that tribe, the Coushattas taking, you know, $3 or $400 million a year on casino proceeds. So they had written some story about an internal audit that found that the tribe had paid Scanlon like $13 million. They wrote this in 2003. But – and that they, you know, they were paying money – a lot of money to Abramoff, too.
But the story that I did tried to look at the lobbying end of it and pull in a lot of tribes and how much he was – and the pattern that the two of them were using around the country with these tribes. And what they would do, Abramoff would go to a tribe, he‘d say, hey, you know, Republicans have taken over Congress, you need me – traditionally given to Democrats, you know, campaign contributions – but look, you need me because you don‘t want your casino proceeds to get taxed. And these tribes are newly rich with these casino monies and he persuaded them that he was vital to protect their financial interests.
And they‘d hire him and he touted his connections to powerful Republicans. And the first thing he‘d so is say OK, now you need to hire Mike Scanlon and he‘s got a public affairs company and he‘ll do sort of grassroots phone banking for you and public opinion polling and things. And the amount of money that Scanlon was charging was even, you know, four or five times more than they were paying Abramoff.
And Scanlon was just this young guy, you know, 32-33 years old at that point. So that was enough to get me very, very interested in what the relationship was there.
LAMB: So you‘re sitting at your desk and literally get a call from somebody, a lobbyist, that says, you know this is going on?
LAMB: And once you put that phone down what was your reaction then? Did you turn around and talk to an editor or you just start making phone calls, or what happens?
SCHMIDT: I‘m trying to remember. At that point I probably started actually looking up lobbying reports – which I know you‘ve talked about this before these lobbying disclosure requirements on Capitol Hill. People have to file reports every six months or so on each of their clients and what they‘re – supposedly what they‘re lobbying for and who they are lobbying on behalf of clients.
So I think I spent quite a bit of time browsing through Abramoff‘s lobbying reports, which were voluminous. I mean he had like 80 clients and they file every six months and, you know, so – and I mean two years later I‘m still looking at lobbying reports.
So I think I – that‘s probably the first thing I did and starting looking at some of the tribes he was representing.
LAMB: Since the time you wrote that piece how many people have been indicted or copped a plea in this whole story?
SCHMIDT: Well, first David Safavian was indicted, he – last fall. He‘s a General Services Administration official. So that case is pending. Mike Scanlon has pled guilty and is cooperating with the government in this investigation.
Another Abramoff business partner by the name of Adam Kadan has pled guilty. He‘s also cooperating. And Abramoff himself has now pled guilty and is cooperating in this larger investigation of government officials.
LAMB: From a presses standpoint, if you hadn‘t written that story would that still have happened do you think?
SCHMIDT: I don‘t think it would have. I think that the Department of the Interior inspector general was always poking around on tribal issues. But none of those investigations got any traction. And I don‘t think so.
Now there is a case in Florida that Abramoff has pled guilty and he‘s pled guilty in two matters in Washington and in Florida, and that‘s this casino line that he bought. That investigation was already ongoing before I wrote that first story.
LAMB: Was it public?
SCHMIDT: There was a grand jury investigating bank fraud but the existence of the grand jury was not known. The existence of the criminal investigation wasn‘t know publicly.
But this was a, you know, stunning thing down in Florida where they bought this – Abramoff and his partner, Adam Kadan, bought this cruise line from this sort of flamboyant multimillionaire down there, Gus Boulis. And – but they were feuding with Boulis. And Boulis ended up getting murdered in this gangland-style hit in early 2001. So it was a big story in Florida.
And there was a lot of lawsuits growing out of this deal and a bankruptcy filing. Huge number of court documents and filings, there‘s a bankruptcy case that‘s 130 files that we went down and looked at. Took us about a week to get through all the civil and bankruptcy proceedings but there was a wealth of information in those documents.
So that case was – would have – possibly would have happened anyway – the indictment of Abramoff down there.
LAMB: In the shorthand, as you were reporting on this whole situation – they always talk about Michael Scanlon and Bob Ney and the Congressional Record. But unless you read your story in depth you have no idea what Bob Ney did and how it fits this whole story. Explain why putting something in the Congressional Record makes any difference at all in this kind of a case.
SCHMIDT: Yes, that‘s interesting. As they were – as Abramoff and Adam Kadan were negotiating to buy the SunCruz line of 11 ships off of Florida that had gambling on them, Gus Boulis, who was a pretty tough customer, was, you know, trying to drive a very hard bargain with them. And he wanted to be a consultant – stay on as a consultant. They were going to buy the thing for $147 million.
And he wanted a piece of it. He didn‘t want to leave it all behind. And they, you know, they were really struggling to push him out. And they got Bob Ney to read something into the Congressional Record …
LAMB: Ohio Republican Congressman.
SCHMIDT: … right, he‘s got nothing to do with Florida or gambling. He‘s from Ohio but yet he reads this statement into the Congressional Record that castigates Gus Boulis and his reputation and, you know, urges that he sell and the like. And this really put pressure on Boulis. Here he was being denounced on the floor of Congress. And he was – it was a power – a show of power by Abramoff and …
LAMB: Did Congressman Ney every answer questions as to why he did it?
SCHMIDT: Well, he – you know, he has said that he was concerned – Boulis did have a bit of a – some problems with the federal authorities and he said that he was concerned about any kind of corruption in the gambling business. That there were gambling institutions in Ohio and, you know, he was – that was his reasoning.
But he said he regretted doing it once he found out more about Boulis and that Michael Scanlon had asked him to do it and he wished he‘d not done it.
Then beyond that he put a second statement in after the sale closed and these guys owned this cruise line. And Boulis is again, you know, fighting with them trying to get back into control of his company. Ney put a statement in praising Adam Kadan, what a great new owner SunCruz has in Adam Kadan.
And Kadan is basically a – he‘s pled guilty now. He‘s associated his – he‘s associated with people in the Gambino family in New York and some of those people got into the cruise line while he was running it. So he is, you know, hardly the kind of guy that you would expect a congressman to be, you know, bucking up in the Congressional Record.
LAMB: A lot of it we talk about in regard to these kinds of stories are the checks and balances in our system and you‘ve mentioned a number of things. I just want to go back and really ask you from your perspective and what you see are the American people well served by the checks and balances in the town? For example, you mentioned the inspector general at the Interior Department …
LAMB: … how much freedom does he or she have?
SCHMIDT: I think they have a lot of freedom but I don‘t think they have a lot of resources. You know I think they can poke around and look into things but, for example, they, you know, they need help from the FBI sometimes.
And I don‘t – I don‘t think there‘s a lot of resources devoted to this.
LAMB: Who do they answer to?
SCHMIDT: They answer I guess ultimately to the Secretary of the Interior.
LAMB: So their job is dependent on making the secretary happy or I mean is this a – should …
SCHMIDT: I mean …
LAMB: … we feel any comfort that every department has one of these?
SCHMIDT: Yes, because they do, do a lot of good stuff. I mean they do find out a lot. But they‘re somewhat independent from the – from the secretary. I mean they – I‘m sure the inspector general is looking at some of the Secretary Norton – you know, Norton‘s activities with regard to this whole matter because there were – Abramoff made great effort to get inside the Department of the Interior and influence decisions that would affect his clients.
LAMB: You mentioned a grand jury in Florida. Let‘s just keep it with the federal prosecutors. How effective are they in getting to the bottom of these situations from what you‘ve seen over the years?
SCHMIDT: They can – they can be very effective because they have huge power to – for example, right now they can put pressure on smaller players, bit players in this thing, to cooperate, give them information, agree to testify about members of Congress or face criminal charges themselves.
LAMB: As a reporter sitting there do you get calls from time to time from people that work in prosecutors‘ offices feeding information?
SCHMIDT: No. It really does not happen.
LAMB: Do you try to get it out of them?
SCHMIDT: You know yes, you try. But, you know, in this story there are – there‘s just a wealth of sources and a wealth of information out there. And we, you know, the press has sort of been ahead of the prosecution. So I wouldn‘t say I spend a lot of time doing that at all.
LAMB: On the checks and balances side, these organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics and all that, did they serve a significant portion of reporters needs now on this kind of information keeping the flow?
SCHMIDT: Yes. Actually the databases that are available now and the online forms that you can go to for me I‘ve spent – I‘ve spent a lot more time than I‘d like to admit looking at these lobbying disclosure forms. And they – you know, one set of forms takes you to another and takes you to another person and, you know, you can unravel all kinds of things. People should spend more time with them. Actually, people in the IG offices should spend more time with these things.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in doing this kind of work?
SCHMIDT: I guess I – probably from the earliest days that I‘ve been a reporter, I mean since the beginning.
LAMB: Where did you start?
SCHMIDT: I started out of college at the Washington Star as a news assistant, news aide, and then went to a couple of other jobs before I got to the Post, including one in California. I was – worked as a reporter in city hall for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, which is an afternoon paper that went out of business.
LAMB: The Star went out of business.
SCHMIDT: Star, yes. And then I came to the Post. And I started as a reporter for the Post in Prince George‘s County and in Annapolis covering the legislature.
LAMB: Go back before that, I mean, where did you get your interest in journalism?
SCHMIDT: Well, actually my family has been in – my grandfather was a – was a photographer. He was the picture editor of the New York Daily News. So for my entire life growing up I mean newspapers were just a huge thing that, you know, we had newspapers all over the house. And it was just the lore (ph) of the daily news and all the stories he‘d been involved in was like a really important thing in our family.
And although I must say I didn‘t really expect to be a reporter. I was interested in news but until I got out of college and I thought I might be – go into book publishing. But they just wanted – one of the big questions in those days was how fast do you type and I didn‘t want to type. So I ended up just knocking on the door of the Washington Star and they had an opening.
So I ended up – and once I walked into that place I knew that that‘s what I wanted to do.
LAMB: So again now you go back to you‘re sitting there at your desk you get this call. You had earlier been involved in the whole Monica Lewinsky story. And did you break that story?
SCHMIDT: Yes, yes. The Washington Post – yes.
SCHMIDT: That‘s right.
LAMB: Because I remember we were on the air live at the time in New York City and it came out in the final edition we missed it, didn‘t know it was on. Why did it end up at that time, the Lewinsky story? And what was it – I know you won‘t name personal sources but what was the source overall of that story? Where did that – from what part of the world did it come from that you found it out?
SCHMIDT: Well that story – actually it was in the – I think we made the second edition of the paper. We didn‘t make the first edition, which is – has an early deadline like, you know, 9:30 or something. And that‘s the edition that goes out around the country. Most of the – it was in most of the papers.
I‘m not sure how much I can say about the sourcing of that but it was – it was a story that kind of bits and pieces began to come together like three or four days before that appeared. I heard that, you know, Newsweek had – was chasing a story about Ken Starr and I knew witness to something. And I sounded like the drums were really beating on that. So I spent the whole weekend – it was a three-day weekend – I spent the whole weekend in the office trying to figure out what was happening.
And Matt Drudge, the Internet guy, had an item on Saturday or Sunday saying that Newsweek had spiked some story. And then a day later he had an item saying that Monica – that the Jones – Paula Jones‘ lawyers were seeking to interview President Clinton about a person named Monica Lewinsky.
And President Clinton was being interviewed that weekend and giving his deposition in the Paula Jones‘ case and Monica Lewinsky was one of the women that he was asked about.
LAMB: And we hadn‘t hear about this woman …
SCHMIDT: No, we‘d not …
LAMB: … before then.
Let me read for the audience from January the 21st, 1998, just the first paragraph because we – it became a huge story after this.
You wrote along with Peter Baker and Tony Lowsie (ph) …
LAMB: "Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has expanded his investigation of President Clinton to examine whether Clinton and his close friend, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., encouraged a 24-year-old former White House intern to lie to lawyers for Paula Jones about whether the intern had an affair with the President sources close to the investigation said yesterday."
Now I assume that sources close to the investigation wanted you to know this?
SCHMIDT: Well, after we figured it out, you know, we got – we got some confirming details, you know, from lots of places. But basically, you know, we had to figure it out first.
And I think one of the crazy things that happened – remembering back on this now, when Monica Lewinsky‘s name popped up on Drudge I was in the office – I think it was Sunday or Monday, Martin Luther King Day.
And as soon as I saw her name I had the news researchers look her up and try to figure out where she – where she worked. And when I saw that she worked in the Pentagon press office then everything fell into place because I knew Linda Tripp worked in the Pentagon press office and I knew she had been a witness in previous Starr inquiries and I knew she had a very dim view of the Clinton White House.
And so I just – everything just sort of fit together and I just jumped in my car and went out to Linda Tripp‘s house. And …
LAMB: Did you know her?
SCHMIDT: No, I didn‘t. But when I got to her house I knew I was on the right track because the lights were on, I went to the door, no answer. I went across the street because I felt like somebody was home – I went across the street to the neighbor‘s house to ask if they knew if she was out of town or anything.
While I was across the street the lights went out. So she was hiding out. She – you know, and so I knew then we were absolutely on the right track.
And then within a day or so I think Monica Lewinsky‘s lawyer said something to a TV reporter, something sort of crazy like, you know, my client, you know, not done anything wrong with the President or something like that. And he almost – he opened the floodgates for the – for the story.
So it‘s kind of – it was a whirlwind of four days or so.
LAMB: But let me ask you, where do you – I mean people who knew you when you were growing up – and you grew up in New York City?
LAMB: Where, which one?
LAMB: So as you‘re growing up did – people be surprised that you were the kind of person that would jump in the car and go out to Linda Tripp at her house? Are you that – I mean were you always that way when you were growing up, unafraid to go to places like this?
SCHMIDT: Yes, I don‘t think – I don‘t – yes, probably they would think I‘m – I would …
SCHMIDT: … do that or, you know, nosey.
LAMB: One of the things when I read your story, and this is back in 1998, I just wondered what we as a society should think of things like this. Bob Bennett is – was the President‘s – at the time the President‘s lawyer. Quote, "The President adamantly denies he ever had a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky and she has confirmed the truth of that. This story seems ridiculous and I frankly smell a rat."
LAMB: What does that do to either his integrity, does it matter anymore, I mean he‘s a lawyer? And when you hear things like that now today from lawyers what is your reaction?
SCHMIDT: Well I think he got caught flatfooted. And I remember that night he – I think Peter Baker talked to him that night and I think he was – he was just taken aback. He didn‘t – he didn‘t know what was going on.
And he – this whole episode ended up being very – you know, he was very upset about what happened because he had – he had asked people in the White House, he had asked Bruce Lindsey and others about Monica Lewinsky and he just got – and Vernon Jordan – and he just got told don‘t worry about it.
And at the end of the day he had – you know, he was embarrassed before a federal judge during that deposition and, you know, he was very upset about it.
LAMB: We‘ve gone through two stories here but I‘d be interested in what people that – around Bill Clinton think you hate Bill Clinton. People that have watched these stories on Mr. Abramoff think you hate the Republicans. Any – either one of those true?
SCHMIDT: No. I‘m pretty non-ideological actually. I‘m not a political person. I just follow the information. I‘m just interested in finding out – following a story. You know I‘m not an ideologue.
LAMB: Why is it so hard for people on either side of these things to understand that?
SCHMIDT: I think a lot of people that have strong emotions about these things are ideologues and they can‘t quite imagine that a reporter is not trying to advance a point of view. A lot of reporters do have strong points of view and – more and more. I mean the whole world is full of pundits, you know, and critics, and you know. But I‘m much more of a – more of a detective kind of reporter than a – than a political reporter.
LAMB: You haven‘t by and large been very visible. It was tough for us to get you to come here and do this interview. Took us a long time to talk you into this, why?
SCHMIDT: Well, I don‘t want to – I don‘t want to become an issue myself. I just want to do my stories. And if – you know, if people seize on something I say as a reason not to believe what I‘m writing, you know, that‘s a concern.
But I mean it‘s just – it‘s also a matter of time. I mean going on television takes a lot of time. And I usually would rather spend that reporting. But not for your show, I‘d make some time for your show.
LAMB: What‘s your family like? I know you‘re married to another journalist.
SCHMIDT: That‘s right. My husband works at USA Today. He‘s on the Op Ed page at USA Today.
LAMB: His name?
SCHMIDT: Glen Nishimura. And we have two teenaged daughters, Kate and Lacy (ph). The older one is going to art school next year and the younger one is still in middle school.
LAMB: What do they think of all this? I mean you‘ve been involved in two huge stories.
SCHMIDT: Yes, I think they – they‘re pretty interested in some of these things. I mean my older daughter‘s been reading a lot of email in the Abramoff scandal. There‘s thousands, 10s of thousands of emails that Abramoff wrote. And so she has gotten some of those and she‘s read some of them and she‘s getting a little bit of an education I think.
LAMB: One of your stories that you wrote on the Abramoff situation was October 16th, 2005 and James Grimaldi was the other writer with you on that.
LAMB: I‘m just going to read a paragraph. It‘s totally out of context with anything but I want you to explain how this stuff works. "The eLottery money went first to Norquist‘s foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, and then through a second group in Virginia Beach called The Faith and Family Alliance before it reached Reed‘s company, Century Strategies. Norquist‘s group retained a share of the money as it passed through."
Let me go back over that again. The e-money went first to Norquist‘s foundation, what‘s e-money or eLottery?
SCHMIDT: eLottery is a gambling – Internet gambling company that Abramoff represented.
LAMB: And Norquist‘s foundation, Americans for Tax Reform?
SCHMIDT: That‘s an – Grover Norquist is an anti-tax crusader, very influential conservative Republican, very close to Abramoff going back to their college days. And he had a tax-exempt foundation called Americans for Tax Reform which was a political advocacy group.
LAMB: What‘s the Virginia Beach-based Faith and Family Alliance?
SCHMIDT: That is a group created by Ralph Reed‘s organization that Reed used as a pass through. What happened here was eLottery, at Abramoff‘s direction, paid money to Grover Norquist‘s group. Norquist then took a little cut, moved the money to Faith and Family Alliance, Faith and Family Alliance then sent it to Ralph Reed‘s commercial company, Century Strategies. He‘s a political consultant now.
But it was – this was intended to conceal the origins of the money. It was a – it was a way to move money to Ralph Reed without people being able to see that it had originated with a gambling concern. And he is an anti-gambling advocate so …
LAMB: Who is?
SCHMIDT: Ralph Reed.
So the idea was to hide the source of the money.
LAMB: But as an anti-gambling advocate wasn‘t he involved in one of these stories in helping a pro-gambling outfit get what they wanted?
SCHMIDT: Yes. That‘s – throughout he has been working hand in glove with Abramoff.
What happens is Abramoff will represent some Indian tribes who say don‘t want rival Indian tribes to get casinos because that will take away their business. So then Ralph Reed will go out and pump up public opinion in church‘s and, you know, do phone banking and advertising to sort of pump up a public opinion against allowing any new casinos by tribes that rival Abramoff‘s clients.
And in return he‘s getting paid by Abramoff and Abramoff‘s money is coming from gambling interests that he represents.
LAMB: One of the things that you conclude when you read all of your stories is that forget all accusing these people of being illegal or doing something illegal, seems to be an enormous amount of dishonesty.
SCHMIDT: Yes, charlatan.
LAMB: How much of that goes on in Washington?
SCHMIDT: Well, a whole like more than …
LAMB: Not illegal but dishonest.
SCHMIDT: Yes. I mean that‘s one of the amazing things is that we‘ve discovered in the past year is how rampant it is. It‘s really blatant. But there are several, you know, religious figures that show up. Ralph Reed is not the only one …
LAMB: You‘ve got one in this story they call him Lucky Louie Sheldon, Reverend – the Reverend Sheldon. We see him all the time. How is he involved in all of this – and something called Traditional Values Coalition?
SCHMIDT: Which is apparently a pretty influential group although they claim to represent 43,000 churches. I‘m not sure that …
LAMB: 4,300 or 43,000? 43,000 that big?
SCHMIDT: But I‘m not sure that they really do. But he got paid too by eLottery. And the amazing thing was he – Abramoff was so determined to kill a bill that eLottery wanted killed that he got Lou Sheldon to denounce in mailers and the like, 10 conservative Republicans claiming that they were soft on gambling for supporting an anti-gambling bill.
LAMB: Was Lou Sheldon paid for this?
SCHMIDT: Yes he was, by eLottery.
LAMB: And eLottery is owned by?
SCHMIDT: Is Abramoff‘s client, the gambling company.
LAMB: And the gambling company – who is the gambling company? Is it another group of Indians?
SCHMIDT: No, it‘s a commercial Internet gambling company.
LAMB: You know one of the threads in all of the pieces when it comes to this is the word casino …
LAMB: … and gambling. What‘s happened in this country? Are we a company – I mean a country completely consumed with gambling? Is that …
SCHMIDT: Well, I mean that‘s one of the things actually that we probably haven‘t spent enough time writing about, but yes, I mean the proliferation of casinos and gambling interests its astonishing.
And the Indian tribes, you know, the casinos are great for individual tribes and tribal members, you know, building up their fortunes and, you know, a lot of them are just – had nothing before. But some of them now are just absolutely dripping in money. And the people that are going to their casinos are some of them are, you know, hardcore gamblers and this is sort of feeding their addiction. And a lot of them are people that really can‘t afford to be losing their money to – so it‘s, you know, it‘s a …
LAMB: The picture you paint is that it doesn‘t matter whether you‘re for or against gambling in this whole business, everybody made out because they all got money one way or the other.
SCHMIDT: Well that‘s true. And the members of Congress got enormous campaign contributions from these newly rich tribes directed by Abramoff who would say OK, give her $25,000, give – you know, and just $5 million or so he was sitting on a war chest that he was doling out to members of Congress.
He was – he would send the tribes lists of members to give to every quarter or – and, you know, half year, and then they would cut checks.
LAMB: Another thing you wrote about are the 80 seats that Jack Abramoff owned at three or four sports centers in the Washington area, the football stadium, FedEx Center or FedEx Field, the MCI Center where they play basketball and hockey, the Baltimore Orioles field up in Baltimore, and maybe there‘s one other in there. Explain how that works and how does it benefit – how does it benefit Abramoff but just as importantly how did it benefit elected officials?
SCHMIDT: Well, you can imagine, you know, if you are in control of these four skyboxes, two at – two at Redskins‘ stadium and then, you know, MCI Center and Camden Yards, it was like a full time job to keep track of who was filling up those seats every night or every other night. And Abramoff had an assistant that that was basically her job.
And he‘d have his lobbying staff – he had about a dozen or so people working with him – lobbyists – and maybe up on Capitol Hill handing out tickets all the time to staffers, congressional aides, committee aides, that they wanted to cultivate. You know, hey, here‘s some tickets to the Redskins‘ game, here‘s some tickets to the Wizards‘ game.
And so the boxes were filled with these staffers that they were trying to get – curry favor with all the time.
LAMB: Did they have to report this, the staffers?
SCHMIDT: Well, these tickets are valued at like $49 dollars under congressional rules. So, you know, it‘s not above the gift limit. But the main thing that he did with these boxes is that he gave them to members of Congress for their use as fundraising venues.
So you‘d have – these boxes are really nice. You know at the MCI Center you go in and there‘s a box with like 20 seats and a member of Congress can invite people to pay oh, $500 and come and have an evening watching the game with a congressman.
LAMB: But it should be pointed out that if you sit in the regular stand for a basketball game you‘re going to pay $80 a seat. If you sit there for a hockey game it‘s going to be $70 a seat. So sitting in the box at $49 there‘s some funny business going on here.
SCHMIDT: Well, yes. And that‘s something that, you know, the congressional ethics people are really probably – they seem like they‘re – there‘s a move to try to do something about some of this.
But these fundraising events, I mean, the members could go and actually Abramoff would even supply the guests if need be, I mean, you know, his clients. So members could raise, you know, $10 – $15,000 just by showing up at this box. And that was – that was a way he really curried favor with a lot of congressmen. And, you know …
LAMB: So explain he owned these boxes and they had say 20 seats in them and a staff member from a congressman or woman could come, the member could come, they could have a fundraiser and then Jack Abramoff could turn around and ask one of his clients would you like to have a, you know – come to the game $1,000 a seat …
LAMB: … so give it to the member. You can sit there and talk to him and enjoy the ballgame.
LAMB: How much of this goes on besides Jack Abramoff?
SCHMIDT: I think – I don‘t think it‘s unheard of at all. I think other lobbying firms have done something like this but on a smaller scale. They might have one skybox and/or there might be a corporation that owns skyboxes and, you know. But this was – this was on a scale of volume that‘s incredible.
LAMB: How could you find out the details on that? What‘s available to you in the way of resources?
SCHMIDT: That was very tough to find out because there‘s – there was nothing. I just heard about it and I finally found somebody who gave me a list of fundraising events – fundraisers for various members of Congress that was probably 200 fundraising events over a period of two or three years that took place in those boxes. He kept track of, you know, when he – because it was, you know, it was a chip that he was going to call in from members of Congress.
So that – and then, you know, you try to find reports from the member. You know you go to the Federal Election Commission records and try to find some documentation there for what happened that night in the skybox.
LAMB: That is – that report is going to be at least six months late though.
LAMB: In other words after the fact, so if you go to a ballgame tonight it‘s going to be at least six months before you‘ll be able to find out …
SCHMIDT: And you‘re not going to really be able to find out anything because it doesn‘t say, you know, Brian Lamb, skybox. It – you might see – you have to sort of know who was there because they might write a check three days after the event. They might write a check a week before the event. And they might be all over the map. So you can‘t really figure out – it‘s hard to figure out who was there, what happened. It‘s not well documented.
LAMB: So what about the other thing, the trip to Scotland, and a foundation set up to funnel money through to pay for a member going because a lobbyist is not supposed to pay for this. How much of that did you uncover?
SCHMIDT: Well, we found quite a bit. My colleagues, James Grimaldi and Jeff Smith, have written most of the trips. Trips to Scotland, just fabulous, you know, luxury trip to St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland that what happened Abramoff in 1999 went on a trip with some half dozen Republican senators. I think it was called the Tartan Invitational.
And they invited – the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had this trip and they invited some 50 lobbyists to go with them to Scotland for this golf trip. And Abramoff evidently thought it was such a great trip and such a great idea that the next year he started his own trip. Although it was – he didn‘t claim to be paying for it but he arranged it and this foundation, you know, put it on and then he had a charity that he created that paid money to the foundation. And he got his clients to pay money to the charity. So his clients ultimately paid for that trip but it went through – once again it went through different entities to sort of …
LAMB: How do find this?
SCHMIDT: You really have to have people help you. You can‘t just get there.
LAMB: Tip you off.
SCHMIDT: You can‘t get there just through the records, you just can‘t.
LAMB: What‘s the goal of somebody that‘s tipping you off about this information usually?
SCHMIDT: Different goals. Some people have their own problems but they‘re trying to deflect attention to someone else.
LAMB: What do you do when that happens?
SCHMIDT: Well, you try to pursue both things. But, you know, you don‘t turn down a bird in the hand, you know. So – and then some people sometime – and in this – in this whole story going back over two years I have to say a lot of people that I‘ve talked to have been really troubled by the excesses. And even though a lot of the people I‘ve talked to are Republicans most …
LAMB: Why didn‘t they do anything about it until now?
SCHMIDT: I think some of the people who‘ve talked to me feel like they‘re doing something about it by talking?
LAMB: No, but I mean all through the last two years people in this town know a lot about how this stuff works and were they hoping that he wouldn‘t get indicted or they wouldn‘t be in a position where he would talk about the others or did they think they wouldn‘t have to change things?
SCHMIDT: Well, people have been talking to the Post for a couple of years, you know, so it‘s not – it‘s not like people are just kind of suddenly coming out of the woodwork. We have had a lot of conversations over the past two years.
LAMB: But I‘m talking about public – I‘m talking about the public officials …
LAMB: … that are now talking about changing the rules.
SCHMIDT: Well, that‘s – you know, I think that some of the elected officials don‘t know how far this thing goes in their own party, both Republican and Democrat. They – the Democrats have not been – a few have been sort of out there strident about it but there‘s a deafening silence on the part of a lot of people. And that‘s because actually Abramoff had – was giving a lot of money to Democrats, too. A third of the – and a third of his staff – and Republicans know that this is very damaging to their party. And so they‘re really concerned about how far this is going to go.
But now you see people sort of trying to get out in front of the parade like Newt Gingrich. And John McCain has made this an issue and his investigation. He started investigating this after we started writing about it. And he‘s – I think Gingrich is probably running for president and he doesn‘t want McCain to have the high ground entirely to himself so he‘s coming out, too.
LAMB: How much of the competitive environment that exists in this town is responsible for people like you getting tips?
LAMB: Competitive, you know, Republican against Republican, Democrats against Republicans …
SCHMIDT: That‘s a good question.
LAMB: … you know, lobbyists against lobbyists, and how much of this comes out of a competitive system that they pick up the phone and say to you, let me just tip you off this is going on over here. And it may be somebody that‘s in the same party.
SCHMIDT: Well, I certainly think initially, you know, the outrage about Abramoff was fueled by competitive interests, although lobbyists, lots of other lobbyists, you know, both parties, were outraged that he was – what he was doing and for – and competitively so, you know. So yes, in the beginning that‘s certainly a big part of it.
LAMB: What are the chances, from what you know of the system here in town, that a lot of this will be taken out – the tools will be taken away from the lobbyists, the corporate jets that are used, the first-class tickets, and trips to golf courses inside the United States as much as outside, the meals? I mean Chris Matthews uncovered by reading the ethics report or ethics rules up there that $50 covers just the meals and you can drink all night and that‘s not – you don‘t have to report that.
SCHMIDT: I didn‘t realize that. Well, it‘s stunning when you get into it. I mean one of the things we reported on was this trip to the Super Bowl in 2001. And a bunch of congressional aides, DeLay‘s people and Conrad Burns‘ people went to the Super Bowl on a corporate jet down to Tampa, paid for by SunCruz, Abramoff and his company paid.
LAMB: Let me just stop and say SunCruz is – are these yachts or do you mean these big ships down in Florida that have casinos …
LAMB: … that Mr. Abramoff had bought.
LAMB: And they paid when once he had bought – I assume once he bought them or is that before he bought them?
SCHMIDT: That was after he bought them.
LAMB: For a corporate – for a jet to carry these staff members down to the Super Bowl.
SCHMIDT: And they – and that – they went on the gambling ship, one of the gambling ships in Tampa and they were given chips to gamble with. And you know, and I asked one of the guys that went, you know, what were you thinking. And he said, "Oh, I didn‘t know SunCruz paid for it. I thought it was tribal funded." And …
LAMB: What would be the difference?
SCHMIDT: Well that‘s what I said. And the difference is that members of – in the Senate you can take gifts from government. So you can takes gifts from a municipality or a state …
SCHMIDT: … or a tribal government.
SCHMIDT: Those are the rules. Now – so this is – this giant – there‘s just one of many loopholes. But that‘s – so if you‘re a member you think you can take any gift you want from an Indian tribe.
LAMB: Do the Indian tribes pay taxes on these …
LAMB: They don‘t.
LAMB: So all this casino money is tax free?
LAMB: Why is that?
SCHMIDT: Because they‘re sovereign nations, technically. You know they‘re not really – they have their own sovereign governments and they‘re not – you know there are plenty of interdependency with the federal government but that‘s the genius of sort of Abramoff‘s scheme here is that he found all these niches that would not be well policed by anybody.
LAMB: Back to the Super Bowl trip, I mean they‘re not – there are other members of Congress that have fundraisers at the Super Bowl and those stories have been reported for years. How did they – how did you find out about this Super Bowl trip back in 2001?
SCHMIDT: I found out from people around Abramoff, people who had been around. As I say – you can‘t get stories like this through documents alone. I mean once you get into it the emails have been just startling. And we‘ve gotten emails from a whole variety of places not just, you know, from the Senate committee which subpoenaed some and has publicly released some. But from people he emailed and then they – maybe those people would forward the emails on to others. And, you know, there‘s just a whole world of people, a whole community of people who have emails.
LAMB: What would you tell a young person watching this who things they want to be a reporter just like you? To start with, what kind of education would you get?
SCHMIDT: Well, I think you can major in anything you know.
LAMB: What did you major in?
SCHMIDT: Mary Baldwin College in Virginia.
LAMB: Down in Staunton, Virginia?
SCHMIDT: In Staunton, Virginia, yes. You know some of my colleagues have backgrounds in science, and you know all kinds of different fields. And that‘s probably good. If I had to do it over I‘d go to law school and have a law degree. I mean I think that would – I think that‘s good training and it would – you know, it‘s good – for this kind of reporting it would be great to have.
LAMB: OK. That‘s – yes, it‘s too late maybe for – you‘re right in the middle of having all these successful stories.
So what other kind of characteristics do you think you have that gets this stuff into these newspapers?
SCHMIDT: Probably just really like to find things out. That‘s – I was thinking back on my college days and, you know, I loved literature but really what I liked about and how I got so hooked on it was deconstructing it and seeing how homes (ph) worked, and how a novel worked. And so if you have that kind of curiosity about how things work and wanting to find things out that‘s good training for – or that‘s just a good prerequisite for this kind of reporting.
LAMB: We don‘t have a link directly to your stories but I‘ve got a number of dates here. I want to make sure if people want to go on WashingtonPost.com they can. January 21st, 1998 was your Monica Lewinsky story. February 22nd, 2004 was your first Abramoff story.
And I want to read the first paragraph and ask you did you have any idea what would happen. "A powerful Washington lobbyist" – you wrote this by yourself – " A powerful Washington lobbyist and a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay persuaded four newly wealthy Indian gaming tribes to pay their firms more than $45 million over the past three years for lobbying and public affairs work, a sum that rivals spending to influence public policy" – "rivals spending to influence public policy by some of the nation‘s biggest corporate interests."
Let me just read the second paragraph. "Touting his ties to conservatives in Congress and the White House, lobbyist Jack Abramoff persuaded the tribes to hire him and public relations executive Michael Scanlon to block powerful forces both at home and in Washington who have designs on their money according to tribe members."
Tom DeLay, no longer leader in the House of Representatives; Michael Scanlon copped a plea, going to go to jail; the same with Jack Abramoff. Did you have any idea when you wrote this that this kind of thing would happen?
SCHMIDT: No, but I did think that – I did think that Abramoff was going to be in big trouble because in that story, you know – because of the kickback arrangement with Mike Scanlon I did think that that was going to cause him a lot of trouble. And, in fact, his firm launched an investigation and he got fired a couple weeks after that story. And the federal investigation, the Senate investigation, commenced.
So I did think that Abramoff was going – he was going to be in trouble. I had no idea it was going to get this big.
LAMB: How much farther is this going to go?
SCHMIDT: I think this is going to go on for a long while because, you know, the process moves slowly. You know you get one person to cooperate and they give you material on someone else and you get that person. And I think it – you know, it‘s going to take a while. I think it‘s going to take a year or two.
LAMB: What impact has all this had on your personally, these stories, the successful journalist stories and in every case you‘ve been proven right?
SCHMIDT: Well, it‘s – you know, it‘s great to be in the paper and to have, you know, stories that are getting a lot of attention. And, you know, I mean I – it‘s a – it‘s been fun and it‘s actually a story that – this story is, believe it or not, a lot easier to report than the Clinton stuff. I mean that was – that was harder going. There were fewer sources. There were – it was harder to get information. This is like kind of a day at the beach.
LAMB: Do you feel pressure?
SCHMIDT: Not really, no. Pressure to get it right and pressure to explain really complicated things in a way that readers can understand what – you can see these schemes are so enormously complex that, you know, the challenge is really making them readable.
LAMB: You had a book called "Truth at Any Cost" along with Michael Weisskopf with Time Magazine. Is there another book in the Jack Abramoff stories?
SCHMIDT: You know there will probably be a lot of books out of this thing.
LAMB: But for you?
SCHMIDT: I don‘t know, maybe. It‘s not something – it‘s not something I‘ve decided yet but, yes, possibly.
LAMB: Have you got a new story you‘re about to drop on the body politic out here?
SCHMIDT: Well, I can‘t really say what we‘re planning but, you know, there will always be more stories.
LAMB: Susan Schmidt, thank you very much for your time.
SCHMIDT: Thank you.