WASHINGTON -- When the government of Malaysia sought to repair its tarnished image in the United States by arranging a meeting between President Bush and its controversial prime minister in 2002, it followed the same strategy as many other well-heeled interests in Washington: It called on well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff for help.
It was a tall order. The prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had been chastised by the Clinton administration for repeated anti-Semitic statements and for jailing his political opponents. But it was important to the Malaysians, according to an Abramoff associate who attended meetings with the Malaysian ambassador and Abramoff.
Abramoff contacted presidential adviser Karl Rove on at least four occasions to help arrange a meeting, according to an eyewitness to the activities.
Finally, this former associate said, Rove's office called to tell Abramoff personally that the Malaysian leader would soon be getting an official White House invitation.
In May 2002, Mahathir met with Bush in the Oval Office, and his photograph with the president was beamed around the world.
Abramoff received $1.2 million from the Malaysian government for his lobbying services in 2001 and 2002, according to an Abramoff associate. Documents obtained by Senate investigators appear to confirm at least $900,000 of that amount.
It's not clear how central Abramoff was in arranging the Oval Office session that was of such import to the Malaysians. The White House says the meeting was arranged through normal White House and State Department channels.
But it was clear, the former associate said, that Abramoff took credit for arranging the session. His reputation for close relationships with the White House and congressional officials enabled him to charge stratospheric fees from his lobbying clients - and the president's meeting with Malaysia's prime minister enhanced that reputation.
The Malaysia episode sheds new light on the practices of Abramoff, the man at the center of a burgeoning corruption scandal, and suggests a closer tie than previously acknowledged between the now-disgraced lobbyist and the highest levels of the Bush White House.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to improperly influencing members of Congress and their aides, offering foreign travel and other benefits and later seeking favors from some of them. He often routed lobbying fees through nonprofit organizations to evade taxes or hide the sources of the funds.
The Malaysian payments were made to the American International Center, a bogus "international think tank" that an Abramoff partner, Michael Scanlon, set up at a Delaware beach house. Abramoff and Scanlon used the center to collect millions from their lobbying clients.
By routing the money in that manner, Abramoff identified his client on federal lobbying disclosure forms as the Delaware-based International Center and thus avoided having to register with the Justice Department as an agent of a foreign government.
After the Malaysian leader's White House meeting, a former associate said, Abramoff was invited to a dinner honoring the prime minister at the Malaysian embassy and given a seat near the head table.
At least one other Washington lobbying firm - Alexander Strategies, which was run by an Abramoff friend and former chief of staff to then-House Majority leader Tom DeLay - was also compensated during this period for helping boost Malaysia's reputation in Washington. That firm, too, was given credit in some circles for helping to arrange the White House meeting as well as separate trips for leading members of Congress, including DeLay and several Democrats, to Malaysia.
The eyewitness was the only person to observe Abramoff's direct contacts with Rove, and even then he only heard Abramoff's end of the conversation. He recalled Abramoff picking up his ringing cell phone, flashing the Caller ID and saying, "It's Karl." Abramoff listened for a few seconds and gave the associate a thumbs up. The lobbyist then closed his phone and said the official invitation was forthcoming. "Call the ambassador."
Apart from the direct contacts between Rove and Abramoff, the witness's description of the Malaysia episode was backed by another former Abramoff associate and by documents released last year by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Both of Abramoff's former associates asked that their names not be used because they feared it could damage future business opportunities.
Both said that Abramoff talked of his access to Rove and cited his relationship with Rove's secretary, Susan Ralston, who serves as Rove's administrative assistant. Before joining the White House staff, Ralston performed similar services as an assistant to Abramoff. One of the former associates said Abramoff referred to Ralston as "my implant" in the White House.
A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, said yesterday that Rove had "no recollection" of any conversations with Abramoff regarding the Malaysian meeting. She said the meeting was arranged through "normal staffing channels."
The meeting took place as Malaysia, a heavily Muslim country, and U.S. officials were discussing that nation's participation in the post-9/11 campaign against terrorism.
"At the time [Mahathir] was Asia's longest-serving prime minister, and an influential Islamic leader," Healy said. "The president met with him to discuss Malaysia's role in the war on terrorism."
Healy said Rove considered Abramoff a "casual acquaintance."
White House officials said Ralston's hiring had nothing to do with her prior association with Abramoff. Healy said she was a "valued member of the White House team."
While White House officials have taken pains to distance Bush and his aides from Abramoff, hoping to shield the president from the scandal's political fallout, former associates say Abramoff would often brag of his ties to the highest levels of the administration.
In addition to the now-famous photographs of him with Bush at White House functions, one lobbyist recalls Abramoff's frequent refrain when confronting important legislative issues: "I'll call Karl on that."
The Malaysian embassy did not respond to requests for comment on Abramoff's work. But bills from the American International Center to the Malaysian embassy have been turned over to a Senate Committee investigating Abramoff's representation of Indian tribes, which he has admitted to defrauding.
The records show that checks from the Embassy of Malaysia from American International Center. Lobbying records show that Abramoff's lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Center but did not disclose that the funds originated with the government of Malaysia.
Abramoff told associates that they did not need to disclose Malaysia as the client on federal lobbying disclosure forms - or register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department - because the client was American International Center, a domestic organization, not the government of Malaysia.
Abramoff's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined comment on any aspect of Abramoff's work for Malaysia.
Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this article.