Thursday, September 21, 2006

Culture of Cronie Corruption: Papers Show Bush Allies' Inside Access

WASHINGTON - A visit to the White House would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime treat for most Americans. For conservative tax strategist Grover Norquist it could be considered no big deal.

Newly disclosed Secret Service records show that Norquist, who runs the nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform, was cleared for at least 97 visits to the White House complex between 2001 and 2006, including a half-dozen with the president.

A watchdog group that sued for access to the records, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said there were more appointments than those documents show, however. Norquist actually had at least 155 engagements at the White House complex, according to information the Secret Service provided during settlement talks over the lawsuit, the group said Thursday.

The Bush administration on Wednesday released over 1,000 pages of Secret Service logs to settle a lawsuit by the Democratic Party and CREW seeking visitor logs for Norquist, fellow Republican activist Ralph Reed and other figures in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The congressional and criminal investigations of Abramoff produced evidence suggesting the lobbyists won access to the Bush White House through conservative activists like Norquist and Reed. The long-sought visitor logs answer the question of how often those two men got inside the White House during the time they were simultaneously supporting the president and assisting Abramoff.

Earlier this month, the White House suggested to the judge in that lawsuit that such records need not be disclosed because the information was privileged and might reveal how Bush and his staff get private advice, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia earlier this year, had at least 49 appointments at the White House complex, including two events with Bush, CREW said.

Officials said they believe all the appointments with Bush involved larger group settings, such as Christmas parties or policy briefings for GOP supporters.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, however, it was possible some of Norquist's meetings were with Karl Rove, the president's longtime confidant and political strategist.

"He is one of a number of individuals who worked to advance fiscal responsibility, which is one of the key aspects of the president's agenda," Perino said.

The records show Norquist's escort to his appointments was sometimes Rove aide Susan Ralston, a former Abramoff lobbying colleague.

Both Reed and Norquist became involved with Abramoff, the once high-powered GOP lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to fraud and is now cooperating with prosecutors in an investigation into influence-peddling that has rocked Capitol Hill.

Norquist's group advocates lower taxes and less government, and he built it into a major force in the Republican Party. Along the way he became friends with Abramoff and Rove....

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