Gerald Cassidy slips on the Jack Abramoff banana peel.
By Robert G. Kaiser
When the Miami-based law firm of Greenberg Traurig pushed Jack Abramoff out of its Washington office in early March 2004, one of the most successful lobbyists ever to work in Washington suddenly found himself on the street, looking for a new situation.
To be sure, he was carrying baggage: ten days earlier The Washington Post had published an exposé of Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes, reporting that he and a secret partner had been paid $45 million by four tribal clients over the previous three years. Greenberg Traurig heightened the sense of an unraveling scandal with its March 3 statement announcing Abramoff's departure from the firm, which revealed that six days earlier, Abramoff had "disclosed ..... for the first time personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable to the firm."
The Post story and subsequent firing created a sensation in the lobbying community. The Senate Indian Affairs committee announced its intention to investigate Abramoff. This was the beginning of the biggest lobbying scandal in modern Washington history.
Nevertheless, Gerald Cassidy decided he ought to meet Abramoff to explore whether he might like to work at Cassidy & Associates. "I had never met him until the day I talked to him about being a consultant," Cassidy said in an interview. As a consultant Abramoff would be expected to bring clients to the firm and would be paid a percentage of whatever fees those clients paid to Cassidy -- typically ten percent. Cassidy said he was also interested in several of the lobbyists who had worked with Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig.
Abramoff's appeal to Cassidy was obvious: He made rain. This is the expression lawyers and lobbyists use for attracting clients, and Abramoff was a peerless rainmaker. In the three years that he worked at the firm, Greenberg Traurig's reported annual lobbying revenue rose from $3.49 million to $25.5 million, more than a sevenfold increase.
In the year prior to Abramoff's firing, 2003, Cassidy & Associates had fallen out of first place in the table of lobbying firms' total revenues for the first time since the records were kept electronically. [view the table at opensecrets.org] Its reported income that year was $27.99 million. Cassidy was always hungry for revenue, and losing first place to the law firm of Patton Boggs (revenue: $30.03 million) was an added incentive. He needed a rainmaker.
Cassidy said "a mutual friend" called him after Greenberg Traurig dumped Abramoff to suggest that the two men should get together. This may have been Arthur Mason, a colorful Republican lobbyist in the Cassidy firm who had been a guest in Abramoff's box at Fed Ex field and admired his pizzazz, according to several colleagues. Mason acknowledged that Abramoff had called him after being fired, to ask if there might be interest in him at Cassidy & Associates. But Abramoff called other people as well, Mason said. Cassidy declined to name the intermediary, but he did recount the message that was conveyed to him:
"There was a lot of talk amongst people who were friends of Abramoff -- and a lot of people who were friends of Abramoff were very nice people, were very good people -- that he had made a lot of money for Greenberg Traurig and that they had made a very bad decision about not defending him, and that what he was doing was defendable and defensible, and that he had a story to tell and that it would come out."
The intermediary "was somebody who knew Gerry very well," said Cassidy's longtime lawyer and partner, Lester "Ruff" Fant, when he heard this account. "He always has this intense loyalty to the underdog. Whoever told him 'this man is getting screwed' knew Gerry very well and knew that he would be sympathetic and try to help someone who was getting screwed."
Mason ushered Abramoff into Cassidy's corner office one day that March, according to colleagues in the office. Cassidy, then 63, had never previously met Abramoff, who had just turned 46. "Other people said he was a good guy," Cassidy said, sitting in the same office where this meeting had taken place. "He was very charming when he was in here, very charming," Cassidy remembered. "He was very impressive on how he would approach things, so we hired him on a consulting basis."
On March 23, three weeks after Greenberg Traurig had fired him, Cassidy and Abramoff struck a deal. Cassidy would pay Abramoff and give him an office in anticipation of the commissions they both expected him to make by referring clients to the Cassidy firm. And he would hire three Abramoff sidekicks, including Todd Boulanger, probably Abramoff's closest day-to-day associate at Greenberg Traurig.
Wasn't it the prospect of Abramoff bringing in more revenue that led Cassidy to offer him a job? "Yeah, but the revenue wasn't assured," Cassidy said. "This was prospective revenue. I was counting that this charming guy who had built a big business would be able to find business. And I wasn't making him an employee, I was simply making him a consultant. And I thought it would be helpful in getting the three people I was trying to get" -- the three former Greenberg Traurig lobbyists whom Cassidy did hire.
When the deal was reported in The Post and Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, the lobbying community buzzed. The original Post exposé had stunned this world, because it showed how brazenly Abramoff and his clandestine associate, Michael Scanlon, had reaped huge rewards from the Indian tribes they represented without reporting the money under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Then Greenberg Traurig cast Abramoff to the winds with that damning statement, and the Indian Affairs Committee launched its investigation, creating an unlikely backdrop for Cassidy's decision to give Abramoff a contract.
Five days later the Indian Affairs Committee disclosed its first major finding: Scanlon, the PR man whom Abramoff had told his Indian clients to hire, had kicked back at least $10 million of his fees from the Indians to Abramoff. The financial arrangement between the two men had not previously been known to Greenberg Traurig or to Abramoff's Indian clients.
Cassidy stuck to his deal with Abramoff for nearly three months. Everything changed when Sen. Daniel Inouye, a member of the Indian Affairs panel with whom Cassidy had maintained close relations for years, sent the lobbyist a stark message. In an interview, Inouye recounted what he told Cassidy: "I said that if he [Abramoff] is around, your people do not come in to my office."
Cassidy confirmed that the conversation took place. He remembered Inouye's instruction: "Get rid of him today." And he did, though without an announcement. In July, the "Special Interests" column on The Post's Federal Page reported that Abramoff had left Cassidy & Associates. This was the only publicity given to his departure. The timeline below shows key events in the Abramoff investigation and the Abramoff-Cassidy relationship.
Inouye said he understood the business pressures on Cassidy. "You've got to maintain the level of business -- otherwise you've got to fire people. And your stock goes down. You won't be able to buy tailored suits," Inouye laughed. "I always kid him about that."
But he also made clear his distaste for Abramoff. "I took it personally. He was ripping off Indians."
For his part, Abramoff was impressed by Cassidy. According to a source familiar with his thinking who refused to be further identified, Abramoff found Cassidy calm, wise and "immune to the controversy going on around" Abramoff. When they first talked, Abramoff assumed that most of his Greenberg Traurig clients would come with him to a new employer, and he thought Cassidy's was "the only firm big enough" to take him on, the source said. Abramoff thought of Cassidy as a big man in the lobbying business, one who was envied by competitors because he "plays on several battlefields at once -- a lot of these guys can't conceive of doing that."
Many of Cassidy's colleagues regretted that there hadn't been more "due diligence" into checking Abramoff's past behavior before Cassidy hired him. When told this, Cassidy replied: "Obviously, it wasn't as good as it should have been. ..... Things like that haven't happened [previously], so it wasn't as good as it should have been. ..... I wish it hadn't happened, but you know, it did."
Months after he made that remark in an interview, Cassidy brought up the subject again. "I had somebody do some work on this," he said, and picked up a document which included excerpts from news stories about Abramoff beginning with the original Post story in February 2004. Cassidy took pains to point out that none of the early stories about Abramoff's relations with the Indian tribes and his kickback arrangement with Scanlon suggested there was any criminal investigation going on. The committee inquiry wasn't criminal, he added -- only in mid-July did The Post report that Abramoff was the target of a federal criminal inquiry. "By that time I had let him go."
Dan Tate Sr., a laconic Georgian who lobbied Congress for Jimmy Carter and worked for Cassidy for a decade until 2001, summarized the Abramoff episode: "If Gerry stubbed his toe there, it's because he saw dollar signs for the company."
At least there was some new revenue to show for this exercise. Eight Abramoff clients from Greenberg Traurig who came over to Cassidy with the Abramoff associates who joined the firm in 2004 brought in $620,000 that year and $700,000 in 2005. One of them was the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, which paid a steady $10,000 a month for those two years.
Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: Cassidy turns to a leading Republican to once again reinvent his firm.
Key Related Materials
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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