WASHINGTON -- Investigators have unearthed e-mails indicating that Representative Tom DeLay's office tried to help lobbyist Jack Abramoff get a high-level Bush administration meeting for Indian clients, an effort that succeeded after the tribes began making a quarter-million dollars in donations.
Tribal money went both to a group founded by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the Cabinet secretary Abramoff was trying to meet, as well as to DeLay's personal charity.
''Do you think you could call that friend and set up a meeting," Tony Rudy, then a DeLay staffer, wrote to fellow House aide Thomas Pyle in a Dec. 29, 2000, e-mail with the subject line ''Gale Norton-Interior Secretary." President Bush had nominated Norton to the post the day before.
Rudy wrote Abramoff that same day promising he had ''good news" about securing a meeting with Norton, forwarding information about the environmental group Norton had founded, according to e-mails obtained by investigators and reviewed by the Associated Press. Rudy's message to Abramoff was sent from Congress's official e-mail system.
Within months, Abramoff clients donated heavily to the group founded by Norton and to DeLay's personal charity. The Coushatta Indian tribe, for instance, wrote checks in March 2001 for $50,000 to the Norton group and $10,000 to the DeLay Foundation, tribal records indicate.
The lobbyist and the Coushattas eventually won face-to-face time with the secretary during a Sept. 24, 2001, dinner sponsored by the group she had founded.
Abramoff's clients were trying to stop a rival Indian tribe from winning Interior Department approval to build a casino.
Federal and congressional investigators have obtained the DeLay staff e-mails from Abramoff's former lobbying firm as they try to determine whether officials in Congress or the Bush administration provided government assistance in exchange for the money Abramoff's clients donated to Republican causes.
The assistance to Abramoff from DeLay's staff occurred a few months after DeLay received political donations, free use of a Washington arena skybox to reward donors, and an all-expenses-paid trip to play golf in Scotland arranged by Abramoff and mostly underwritten by his clients.
DeLay's lawyer said this week his client probably didn't know about the assistance his aides gave Abramoff five years ago and does not believe his office would ever provide government assistance in exchange for political donations.
''On its face it's not unusual for staffers to assist people trying to get a meeting with an executive branch agency and that would be something a member of Congress would not typically be involved with. That's staff work," attorney Richard Cullen said in an interview. ''Tom DeLay conducts himself consistent with the highest standards of conduct and he mandated the same for his staff."
Shortly after the e-mail exchanges, the two DeLay aides, Rudy and Pyle, left DeLay's office for private sector jobs. Rudy went to work for Abramoff while Pyle went to work for the Koch pipeline company. Neither returned calls to their offices this week seeking comment.