The pitch from superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was hard to resist: a good way to get access on Capitol Hill, he told his clients a few years ago, was to contribute to a worthy charity he and his wife had just started up. The charity, called the Capital Athletic Foundation, was supposed to provide sports programs and teach "leadership skills" to city youth. Donating to it also had a side benefit, Abramoff told his clients: it was a favored cause of Rep. Tom DeLay.
The pitch worked especially well among a group of Indian tribes who, having opened up lucrative gaming casinos, had hired Abramoff to protect their interests in Washington. In 2002 alone, records show, three Indian tribes donated nearly $1.1 million to the Capital Athletic Foundation. But now, NEWSWEEK has learned, investigators probing Abramoff's finances have found some of the money meant for inner-city kids went instead to fight the Palestinian intifada. More than $140,000 of foundation funds were actually sent to the Israeli West Bank where they were used by a Jewish settler to mobilize against the Palestinian uprising. Among the expenditures: purchases of camouflage suits, sniper scopes, night-vision binoculars, a thermal imager and other material described in foundation records as "security" equipment. The FBI, sources tell NEWSWEEK, is now examining these payments as part of a larger investigation to determine if Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribe clients. The tribal donors are outraged. "This is almost like outer-limits bizarre," says Henry Buffalo, a lawyer for the Saginaw Chippewa Indians who contributed $25,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation at Abramoff's urging. "The tribe would never have given money for this."
Abramoff, a legendary lobbyist particularly close to DeLay, is also a fierce supporter of Israel--"a super-Zionist," one associate says. That may explain why Abramoff's paramilitary gear ended up in the town of Beitar Illit, a sprawling ultra-Orthodox outpost whose residents have occasionally tangled with their Palestinian neighbors. Yitzhak Pindrus, the settlement's mayor, says that several years ago the town was confronting mounting security problems. "They [the Palestinians] were throwing stones, they were throwing Molotov cocktails," Pindrus says. Abramoff's connection to the town was Schmuel Ben-Zvi, an American emigre who, the lobbyist told associates, was an old friend he knew from Los Angeles. Capital Athletic Foundation public tax records make no mention of Ben-Zvi. But they do show payments to "Kollel Ohel Tiferet" in Israel, a group for which there is no public listing and which the town's mayor said he never heard of.
Pindrus says Ben-Zvi was an outspoken proponent of beefing up security and even began organizing his own freelance patrols. "He used to bring in this equipment--night-vision goggles, telescopes," says Pindrus. At least some of the equipment appears to have come from Abramoff's law firm. An August 2002 invoice obtained by NEWSWEEK shows that $773 worth of paramilitary gear--including sniper shooting mats and "hydration tactical tubes"--was shipped to one of Abramoff's aides at the law firm where the lobbyist then worked. Reached last week, Ben-Zvi angrily denied any knowledge of Abramoff or being involved in any efforts to obtain security gear.
The West Bank security payments are not the only foundation expenditure being eyed by investigators. The bulk of the foundation's money, about $4 million, was used for a now-defunct Orthodox Jewish school in suburban Maryland that two of Abramoff's sons attended. Buffalo says his tribe had no idea its donations were being used for this purpose, either. A spokesman for Abramoff vigorously defended all of the expenditures. Abramoff, says spokesman Andrew Blum, "is an especially strong supporter of Israel and has tried to find ways to help Israelis and others to be less susceptible to terrorist attacks." Still, the increasing attention from the news media and investigators is causing even old friends like DeLay to back away. A spokesman last week vigorously disputed that DeLay had anything to do with Abramoff's charity. Although he had been scheduled to attend a planned gala fund-raiser for the foundation two years ago, DeLay never went. As for the security shipments to the West Bank, DeLay knew nothing about it, the spokesman said.