I mentioned a few days ago that the scandals surrounding uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff were reaching deep into the Interior Department. Those scandals are complex and varied, and I know most people are tuning out. But a great (and darkly amusing) story in Salon today breaks it down for you.

In 2000, Interior Secretary Gale Norton established a group called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) to advance the Bush administration’s (anti-)environmental agenda. It was headed by Italia Federici, a minor Republican functionary.

In private, Federici established a close relationship with Abramoff. He funneled her large contributions, in effect stolen from the Native American tribes he represented. In return, she … well, she did all sorts of things for him:

[Federici] arranged meetings, requested photo opportunities, delivered memos and newspaper articles to Interior officials. She even organized Georgetown dinner parties, under the cover of CREA, so Abramoff’s clients could meet with Norton and Griles. “Thanks for all you do for my clients, the cause and me personally,” Abramoff wrote her in a 2002 e-mail.

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CREA spent [tribal money] on initiatives that had nothing to do with the Native American tribes, but much to do with furthering President Bush’s agenda. In April 2002, for example, CREA ran a $40,000 full-page ad in the Washington Post praising the environmental merits of the president’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At the same time, e-mails show that Abramoff and Federici plotted to use environmental causes to help Abramoff’s gambling clients. In December 2002, Abramoff proposed to Federici that she encourage the Interior Department to “say that they are not satisfied with the Environmental Impact Report” of a proposed casino in Michigan that would compete with one of Abramoff’s clients. “This is a direct assault on our guys,” Abramoff wrote to Federici. Eight minutes later, she wrote back to say she would contact Griles. “I will call him asap,” she said. The casino was eventually approved, after a protracted delay.

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Federici’s relationship with Abramoff has been established by a long trail of extremely incriminating emails.

Yesterday, she testified under oath before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, co-chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). She denied everything.

“We provided excellent environmental advocacy consistent with our mission,” she said of her work with CREA, which is registered as a nonprofit. “I get a lot of unsolicited e-mail, and I am helpful to all of my friends.”

Just being helpful! She maintained this line of defense even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The results are hilarious.

In April of 2003, for example, Abramoff asked her to find out about a procedural change proposed by the department that had upset his clients. “Hi Jack: I will definitely see what I can find out,” she wrote back, before immediately changing the topic. “I hate to bug you, but is there any news about a possible contribution…?”

“Any objective observer would see that there is a connection between contributions to your organization and the work that you would be doing on behalf of Mr. Abramoff,” McCain said.

“I attached a second unrelated thought about an environmental project,” Federici protested.

“Since your answers are so bizarre, I won’t continue,” said McCain a few minutes later. “I will let others make the judgment.”

Michael Crowley relates this tidbit:

After one such obfuscation McCain simply stared blankly at Federici, leaned back in his chair, paused a beat, and declared, “That is a remarkable answer.”

Dorgan at one point sputtered, "That is unbelievable." Hard to argue. But it’s definitely not over:

The Senate Finance Committee is beginning its own investigation into the use of nonprofits like CREA by lobbyists like Abramoff. The Justice Department is in the midst of a wide-ranging investigation of Abramoff’s lobbying operation. Sen. McCain has suggested the Internal Revenue Service should mount its own investigation. And Dorgan said he will ask for another hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee.

Stay tuned — we’ll be hearing a lot more about this.

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