Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman has been inconsistent in his public statements about his relationship to disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In recent interviews, CNN's Wolf Blitzer and U.S. News & World Report staff writer Will Sullivan passed up the opportunity to challenge Mehlman about these inconsistencies.
As the scandal surrounding disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff has inched closer to the White House over the past year, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ken Mehlman has offered inconsistent accounts of his relationship with Abramoff. In a January interview, Mehlman described Abramoff as "someone who we don't know a lot about. We know what we read in the paper." In April, however, an RNC spokesperson was quoted conceding that Mehlman had known Abramoff "in various capacities" after emails surfaced suggesting that, as White House political director during Bush's first term, Mehlman had repeatedly been in direct contact with the lobbyist. And when even more details recently came to light regarding the political favors Mehlman allegedly carried out on Abramoff's behalf, Mehlman told the Los Angeles Times that he did not "recall the details of his contacts with the Abramoff team."
But in an October 15 interview with Mehlman, CNN host Wolf Blitzer did not ask him to explain his shifting accounts of his involvement with Abramoff. Further, in the published excerpts of an interview with Mehlman in the October 23 issue of U.S. News & World Report, staff writer Will Sullivan failed even to ask him about his relationship with the lobbyist, as a diarist on the weblog Daily Kos noted.
Following are Mehlman's evolving statements regarding Abramoff:
- In a January interview with freelance journalist A.L. Bardach, Mehlman described Abramoff as "someone who we don't know a lot about. We know what we read in the paper."
- In the April issue of Vanity Fair, contributing editor David Margolick reported that documents obtained by Vanity Fair indicated that Mehlman had done political favors for Abramoff and even attended Sabbath dinner at the lobbyist's house. Margolick quoted Abramoff saying, "Any important Republican who comes out and says they didn't know me is almost certainly lying." The article also noted that a spokesperson for Mehlman responded that he "does not recall the e-mail exchange, 'because he was often contacted by political supporters with suggestions and ideas,' or the Sabbath dinner." RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt subsequently told Reuters that "Jack Abramoff is someone that the chairman has known in various capacities during his time in Washington."
- A September 29 report by the House Committee on Government Reform found that "Abramoff and his colleagues billed their clients for more than 400 contacts with White House officials between 2001 and 2004," as The Washington Post reported. Included in the billing records were 17 contacts with the White House Office of Political Affairs, which Mehlman directed until 2004. The committee noted that Abramoff associate Tony Rudy had described Mehlman as a "rock star" in a November 9, 2001, email to Abramoff, after a meeting "regarding efforts to secure federal funds for the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians." The report further noted that, according to a Department of Justice probe, one White House aide "kept Abramoff aware of information relevant to Guam ... at the behest of Ken Mehlman." In response to the committee's findings, Schmitt asserted that 'it was not unusual'' that Mehlman ''would be in contact with supporters who had interest in administration policy.''
- An October 15 Los Angeles Times article reported that a string of emails from 2001 "suggest" that Mehlman had worked to remove State Department official Allen Stayman at Abramoff's request. The Times reported that the "e-mails show that Abramoff, whose client list included the Northern Mariana Islands, had long opposed Stayman's work advocating labor changes in that U.S. commonwealth, and considered what his lobbying team called the 'Stayman project' a high priority." In an email sent after a meeting with Mehlman, an Abramoff associate reportedly wrote, "Mehlman said he would get him fired." Shortly thereafter, Stayman lost his position in the State Department. According to the article, Mehlman conceded that he had known Abramoff since the mid-1990s, but "said he did not recall the details of his contacts with the Abramoff team."
In his first televised interview since the September 29 House report, Mehlman appeared on the October 15 edition of CNN's Late Edition. During the interview, host Wolf Blitzer noted the allegations in the Times article that Stayman lost his job "after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff." Blitzer then asked: "Is that true?" Mehlman responded, "It is not true," adding that he "did not have the authority as the political director to fire anybody" and that he typically "let the policy-makers or the personnel deciders know exactly what people said. And they made the decisions." He further stated, "I also don't recall the specifics of this matter involving Mr. Stayman. But as a matter of course, and certainly in the first term, I had, frequently, people come to see me with political issues they wanted talked about." Blitzer went on to note that the Times quoted "an email from one of Abramoff's associates, as saying, 'Mehlman said he would get him fired.' In response, Mehlman again stated that he "didn't have that authority." Blitzer subsequently changed the subject.
But Blitzer could have asked Mehlman to reconcile his various accounts of his relationship with Abramoff:
- You stated in January that Abramoff was "someone we don't know a lot about" -- that "we know what we read in the paper" -- but have since admitted that you have known him "in various capacities" since the mid-'90s. So by your own admission, your knowledge of him extended beyond what you read "in the paper." How do you explain that discrepancy?
- According to Margolick's reporting in Vanity Fair, documents indicate that you attended Sabbath dinner at Abramoff's house. Margolick quoted a spokesperson saying you don't recall whether you had Sabbath dinner at Abramoff's house. How is that possible? Do you still maintain that you don't remember whether you had Sabbath dinner with Abramoff?
Further, Blitzer could have pressed Mehlman on his response to the Stayman allegations:
- I understand that in your capacity as White House political director you "did not have the authority" to fire Mr. Stayman yourself, only to "let the policy-makers or the personnel deciders know exactly what people said." But the Times article specifically alleges that your "intervention" in the matter led to his firing. Did you convey to anyone in the administration that Abramoff wanted Stayman removed from his State Department post? Did you communicate with anyone in the administration at all about Stayman?
- As the Times noted, Abramoff had "long opposed" Stayman's efforts to extend U.S. labor laws to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Indeed, in a January 31, 1998, email, Abramoff outlined a plan to "impeach Stayman and his campaign against the CNMI." Were you aware of Abramoff's longstanding opposition to Stayman's work?
From the October 15 edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer:
BLITZER: There's a story in the Los Angeles Times today that directly involves you. And I want to give you a chance to respond to it.
It suggests that an official at the State Department was fired, a man named Allen Stayman, who was involved in the tiny Pacific islands nations of the Northern Mariana Islands. He was fired because Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Republican lobbyist, now confessed felon, came to you and basically said, "Fire this guy; he's not allowing the policies in the Northern Mariana Islands that Abramoff and his clients wanted."
"Newly disclosed emails," the L.A. Times reports, "suggest that the ax fell after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff."
You were then the political director.
MEHLMAN: I was.
BLITZER: Is that true?
MEHLMAN: It is not true. And I'm not sure that those emails suggested that. First of all, Wolf, I did not have the authority as the political director to fire anybody. It wasn't my decision.
As political director -- now second of all, I also don't recall the specifics of this matter involving Mr. Stayman. But as a matter of course, and certainly in the first term, I had, frequently, people come to see me with political issues they wanted talked about.
BLITZER: Including Jack Abramoff?
MEHLMAN: Or personnel issues that they wanted talked about. And when they would come see me, what I would do is let the decision-makers --
BLITZER: Jack Abramoff, also?
MEHLMAN: Again, I don't recall that specific matter that he came to me for, but I had a way of dealing with all these matters, which was to let the policy-makers or the personnel deciders know exactly what people said. And they made the decisions.
What's interesting about this, though, Wolf, while I don't recall it specifically, I have seen some articles since then, since this came out. And what they suggest is that Mr. Stayman violated the Hatch Act, which is a federal law that prohibits employees of the government engaging in politics on their official clock.
And it also suggests he may have been working with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] on some things. So while I certainly didn't have the authority to fire anybody and I don't recall this specific matter, it does appear, from what other news reports indicate that there was apparently cause for Mr. Stayman to be removed.
BLITZER: Because, in the L.A. Times, it quotes an email from one of Abramoff's associates, as saying, "Mehlman said he would get him fired."
MEHLMAN: Yeah, Mehlman didn't have that authority. Mehlman wouldn't say he had that authority. And remember, you're dealing with individuals who, as we know, have pled guilty to defrauding their clients by saying they did things they weren't able to get done.
As a political director, my job -- and any job of a political director -- is to hear from people, whether it's about personnel or about policy, and make sure that the policy-makers understand their concerns.