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WASHINGTON - Jack Abramoff liked to slip into dialogue from "The Godfather" as he led his lobbying colleagues in planning their next conquest on Capitol Hill. In a favorite bit, he would mimic an ice-cold Michael Corleone facing down a crooked politician's demand for a cut of Mafia gambling profits: "Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing."

The playacting provided a clue to how Abramoff saw himself - the power behind the scenes who directed millions of dollars in Indian gambling proceeds to favored lawmakers, the puppet master who pulled the strings of officials in key places, the businessman who was building an international casino empire.

Abramoff is the central figure in what could become the biggest congressional corruption scandal in generations. Justice Department prosecutors are pressing him and his lawyers to settle fraud and bribery allegations by the end of this week, sources knowledgeable about the case said. Unless he reaches a plea deal, he faces trial Jan. 9 in Florida in a related fraud case.

A reconstruction of the lobbyist's rise and fall shows that he was an ingenious dealmaker who hatched interlocking schemes that exploited the machinery of government and trampled the norms of doing business in Washington - sometimes for clients but more often to serve his desire for wealth and influence. This inside account of Abramoff's career is drawn from interviews with government officials and former associates in the lobbying shops of Preston Gates & Ellis LLP and Greenberg Traurig LLP; thousands of court and government records; and hundreds of e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, as well as those released by Senate investigators.

Abramoff, now 47, had mammoth ambitions. He sought to build the biggest lobbying portfolio in town. He opened two restaurants close to the Capitol. He bought a fleet of casino boats. He produced two Hollywood movies. He leased four arena and stadium skyboxes and dreamed of owning a pro sports team. He was a generous patron in his Orthodox Jewish community, starting a boys' religious school in Maryland.

For a time, all things seemed possible. Abramoff's brash style often clashed with culturally conservative Washington, but many people were drawn to his moxie and his money. He collected unprecedented sums - tens of millions of dollars - from casino-rich Indian tribes. Lawmakers and their aides packed his restaurants and skyboxes and jetted off with him on golf trips to Scotland and the Pacific island of Saipan.

Abramoff offered jobs and other favors to well-placed congressional staffers and executive branch officials. He pushed his own associates for government positions, from which they, too, could help him.

He was a man of contradictions. He presented himself as deeply religious, yet his e-mails show that he blatantly deceived Indian tribes and did business with people linked to the underworld. He had genuine inside connections but also puffed himself up with phony claims about his access.

Abramoff's lobbying team was made up of Republicans and a few Democrats, most of whom he had wined and dined when they were aides to powerful members of Congress. They signed on for the camaraderie, the paycheck, the excitement.

"Everybody lost their minds," recalled a former congressional staffer who lobbied with Abramoff at Preston Gates. "Jack was cutting deals all over town. Staffers lost their loyalty to members - they were loyal to money."

A senior Preston Gates partner warned him to slow down or he would be "dead, disgraced or in jail." Those within Abramoff's circle also saw the danger signs. Their boss had become increasingly frenzied about money and flouted the rules. "I'm sensing shadiness. I'll stop asking," one associate, Todd Boulanger, e-mailed a colleague.

Abramoff declined to comment for this article. "I have advised my client not to speak, except in court," said Neal Sonnett, one of his attorneys. A friend of two decades, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., defended Abramoff: "I think he's been dealt a bad hand and the worst, rawest deal I've ever seen in my life. Words like bribery are being used to describe things that happened every day in Washington and are not bribes."

Few of those interviewed would agree to be quoted on the record because of the ongoing investigation by a Justice Department task force. But some who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they look back in amazement at the heady days of Abramoff's rise.

"We weren't outside the box," the former Preston Gates colleague said. "We were outside the universe."

Hints of Trouble

A quarter of a century ago, Abramoff and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist were fellow Young Turks of the Reagan revolution. They organized Massachusetts college campuses in the 1980 election - Abramoff while he was an undergraduate at Brandeis and Norquist at Harvard Business School - to help Reagan pull an upset in the state.

They moved to Washington, maneuvered to take over the College Republicans - at the time a sleepy establishment organization - and transformed it into a right-wing activist group. They were joined by Ralph Reed, an ambitious Georgian whose later Christian conversion would fuel his rise to national political prominence.

Soon they made headlines with such tactics as demolishing a mock Berlin Wall in Lafayette Park, where they also burned a Soviet leader in effigy. "We want to shock them," Abramoff told The Post at the time.

They forged lifelong ties. At Reagan's 72nd-birthday party at the White House, Reed introduced Abramoff to his future wife, Pam Alexander, who was working with Reed. She eventually converted to Judaism and embraced the Orthodox beliefs Abramoff had adopted as a teen-ager.

Even in those early days, there were hints of the troubles to come. "If anyone is not surprised at the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, it is me," said Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Abramoff and his crew busted the College Republicans' budget with a 1982 national direct-mail fundraising campaign that ended up "a colossal flop," said Bond, then deputy director of the party's national committee. He said he banished the three from GOP headquarters, telling Abramoff: "You can't be trusted."

Shortly thereafter, Abramoff was running Citizens for America, a conservative grass-roots group founded by drug-store magnate Lewis E. Lehrman. Abramoff was in frequent contact with Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the Reagan White House's Iran-Contra mastermind, about grass-roots efforts to lobby Congress for the Nicaraguan Contras, according to records in the National Security Archive.

One of Abramoff's most audacious adventures involved Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who had U.S. support but was later found to have ordered the murders of his movement's representative to the United States and that man's relatives. With Savimbi, Abramoff organized a "convention" of anticommunist guerrillas from Laos, Nicaragua and Afghanistan in a remote part of Angola. Afterward, Lehrman fired Abramoff amid a dispute about the handling of the group's $3 million budget.

Abramoff also worked on behalf of the apartheid South African government, which secretly paid $1.5 million a year to the International Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group that Abramoff operated out of a townhouse in the 1980s, according to sworn testimony to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the same time, Abramoff dabbled as a Hollywood producer, shepherding an anticommunist movie, "Red Scorpion," starring Dolph Lundgren, filmed in Namibia, which was then ruled by South Africa. Actors in the film said they saw South African soldiers on the set. When the film was released in 1989, anti-apartheid groups demonstrated at the theaters. The movie ran into financial difficulty during and after production, but Abramoff produced a sequel, "Red Scorpion 2."

Mysterious Entrance

When Republicans wrested control of the House from the Democrats in 1994, Abramoff turned his focus back to Washington politics. With Norquist's help, he reinvented himself as a Republican lobbyist on heavily Democratic K Street. Norquist was one of the intellectual architects of the Republican Revolution and a muse for its leader, Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., soon to be speaker of the House.

Abramoff also counted on his father, who had a wealth of connections from his days as president of the Diners Club credit card company. Frank Abramoff had once looked into operating a casino in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. territory that includes Saipan. He introduced his son around, and the Marianas became one of the first important clients of the new lobbyist.

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Soon the younger Abramoff developed a key alliance with Rep. Tom DeLay, a conservative Republican from Texas who was working his way up in the House leadership. The two met at a DeLay fundraiser on Capitol Hill in 1995, according to a former senior DeLay aide. The aide recalled that Edwin A. Buckham, then DeLay's chief of staff, told his boss: "We really need to work with Abramoff; he is going to be an important lobbyist and fundraiser."

DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men.

Almost from the start, Abramoff struck some rival lobbyists as a strange figure who operated on the margins. He even turned up as a representative of the Pakistani military when Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto went to Washington in 1995 to seek the return of $600 million the Islamabad government had paid for 28 F-16 fighters. The sale had been blocked by the U.S. government over concerns about Pakistan's nuclear program.

Bhutto's Washington lobbyists were at the Pakistani embassy savoring her successful meeting with President Bill Clinton when a man in a suit made a mysterious entrance.

"Suddenly, this portly guy steps in and sits down. He says nothing," recalled one of the lobbyists. The Americans asked him to introduce himself. He folded his arms and refused.

"Finally, he says, `I am Jack Abramoff,"' recalled the lobbyist, a well-connected Democrat. They had never heard of him. Abramoff explained that he was "close to Newt."

The astonished lobbyists for Bhutto learned that Abramoff had traveled to Islamabad and had sold his services to the Pakistani military without the prime minister's knowledge.

In the Senate, Abramoff befriended Republicans and their staffers, along with some Democrats on the appropriations committees. In August 1999, he signed up for the National Republican Senatorial Committee's "Tartan Invitational," in which a half-dozen Republican senators and their aides spent a few days with about 50 lobbyists golfing at the exclusive St. Andrews Links in Scotland.

The following year, Abramoff figured out how to use his clients to fund his own trips to St. Andrews with lawmakers. The first guests were DeLay and his aides.

Team Abramoff

With Norquist's help, Abramoff secured a spot on the transition team for the Interior Department after George W. Bush's election as president in 2000. He tried to place several officials in Interior, including an unsuccessful attempt to land a former Marianas official in the top spot overseeing U.S. territories.

He was able to befriend J. Steven Griles, the deputy interior secretary, e-mails and interviews show. By the summer of 2001, Abramoff was referring to him in an e-mail to a client as "our guy Steve Griles." Federal investigators are now looking into whether Griles interceded on behalf of Abramoff and improperly discussed a job with the lobbyist while in a position to affect his clients. Griles denied any wrongdoing in recent testimony to the Senate.

Abramoff's team also cultivated Roger Stillwell, the Marianas desk officer at the Interior Department. In a recent interview, Stillwell said he accepted dinners at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures, and tickets to Redskins games. But he said that all those actions occurred while he was a contract employee at Interior, not a federal worker. He also said he sent Abramoff copies of e-mails he sent to his boss, but he noted that none of them contained confidential information and that "there's nothing wrong with doing that."

Abramoff wallowed in his access, real and imagined. When his crack administrative assistant Susan Ralston bolted for a position with White House political adviser Karl Rove, Abramoff told colleagues he had gotten her the job even though it was Ralston's old boss, Reed, who made it happen, her former colleagues said.

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