11/15/2005 02:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


There always was something weird about the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA). In fact, this industry front group founded by current Interior Secretary Gale Norton has always seemed a bit, well, creepy. It claimed as its marquee environmentalist former Sierra Club Executive Director Doug Wheeler, whom it trotted out in 2003 to join Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa to argue for drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But Hoffa never tried to argue that his support for Arctic drilling was an act of environmental leadership -- he was pretty straight up that he was focused on jobs. So why was he being teamed up with Wheeler and CREA, instead of a genuine, upfront business group? CREA pretended to be the reactionary right's response to Republicans for Environmental Protection, the genuinely green GOP group, but loading it up with the likes of radical anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist pretty much blew that cover. Was it just an effort to embarrass the Sierra Club by bringing on someone who very briefly was our Executive Director almost 20 years ago?

Bottom line: CREA's efforts at greenscamming always seemed a bit half-hearted and, considering that they appeared to have a lot of money (running ads in the Washington Post), nothing much ever seemed to come of it.

Well, now we have a much better idea of what was really going on with CREA. It turns out that, like much of the advocacy swirling around the efforts to sacrifice the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, CREA did have an important secret function -- a function that had nothing to do with greenscamming the effort to drill the Refuge.

It turns out CREA was a laundry. At least, that is the strong suspicion created by a chain of e-mails from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff involving an effort to get Indian tribes to funnel a quarter of a million dollars to CREA, apparently as the price of access to Interior Secretary Norton -- one of CREA's founders.

According to news reports, indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's staff moved as soon as Norton was nominated to try to get a meeting for one of Abramoff's Indian gaming clients:

"Do you think you could call that friend and set up a meeting," then-DeLay staffer Tony Rudy wrote to fellow House aide Thomas Pyle in a Dec. 29, 2000, in an e-mail titled "Gale Norton-Interior Secretary." President Bush had nominated Norton to the post the day before.

"Within months, Abramoff clients donated heavily to the Norton-founded group and the lobbyist and one of the tribes he represented won face-to-face time with the secretary during a Sept. 24, 2001, dinner sponsored by the group she had founded [CREA]. Abramoff's clients were trying to stop a rival Indian tribe from winning Interior Department approval to build a casino."

It also turns out that CREA was actually run by Norton's political fund-raiser, Italia Federici. And only after tribes had given CREA a quarter of a million dollars did Norton meet with them -- at a CREA dinner set up by Federici.

Now the Department of Justice has subpoenaed CREA's records. And it turns out that in addition to helping arrange the dinner with Norton, Federici and CREA also intervened on behalf of the tribes with Undersecretary of the Interior Steven Griles. And Griles, in turn, apparently promised he would block the competing casinos. In turn, Abramoff promised him a job -- a clear violation of federal law.

And this all happens just after we find out that Tom DeLay asked Abramoff to raise $150,000 from his Indian-gaming clients through a private "charity" run by Abramoff, the Capital Athletic Foundation.

So once again we have the unholy alliance -- DeLay, Abramoff, Griles, and now Norton -- exchanging money and peddling influence hither and yon, using non-profit organizations for purposes that appear to have been anything but non-profit, and generally running amok. Nothing in CREA's charter makes Indian gaming a legitimate part of its mission. It wasn't even registered as a lobbyist. And what does the Capital Athletic foundation have to do with DeLay's need for $150,000 for unspecified purposes?

You read it here first -- despite the still unfolding news about Senate Majority leader Bill Frist's blind trust and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski's denial of a conflict of interest in building a "bridge to nowhere" near land her family owns --- the maze of money exchanges and influence buying at the Interior department may turn out to be the biggest financial scandals of the Bush administration.. I'm guessing they lie somewhere within the as yet barely probed innards of the Department. And if my hunch proves correct, I'll bet it won't just be Indian gaming that's involved -- Alaska's oil wealth will be somewhere in the picture.

Another Teapot Dome scandal appears to be brewing.