In his press conference today, President Bush suggested that the existence of photographs of himself and Jack Abramoff are no big deal and generally pooh-poohed the press's focus on the story. But our reporting suggests that the White House is actively involved in covering up and possibly destroying photographic evidence of the two men together.
Earlier this month, we were alerted to the existence of a series Abramoff photos at the website of Reflections Photography, a studio that does photo shoots for many Republican political events and sells copies to the individuals who attended the events and other members of the public through an online photo database. Reflections was an official photographer for Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign events and for the 2005 inauguration.
One of those photos was of Abramoff and Ralph Reed at a party for the launch of Reed's Century Strategies DC office in 2003. We contacted Reflections Photography and purchased the rights to publish that photograph and did so on January 11th.
Things weren't so simple with the late 2003 photograph of Jack Abramoff and President Bush.
When we went to the page for the photograph of President Bush and Abramoff, the page in question had disappeared from the site. Indeed, in the sequence of photographs from the event in question, each had a unique identification number in perfect consecutive order. All were there on the site, in sequence, with the exception of the one that was apparently that of President Bush and Abramoff.
I called back Reflections Photography and spoke to the woman who had earlier sold us the licensing rights to the other image. I told her there was another photograph we wanted to purchase the rights to publish but that it appeared no longer to be on their website.
She told me that sometimes pictures going back as far as 2003 had not been transferred over to the online catalog.
I told her that as far as we knew the photograph had been available on the site until quite recently. Then I asked if the photograph in question were available in their offline archives and whether I could purchase it that way.
She said that it was and that the CD in question was available for purchase.
I asked her if it would be possible for her to pull the CD. Then I could describe the photograph with the identification number in question to her to verify that it was the same picture.
The woman, who was helpful and friendly throughout, said she could and asked me to wait a few minutes while she retrieved the CD in question.
After a few minutes, she returned and proceeded to pull up the photo in question on the CD. Then, to her audible surprise, she told me the "photo was deleted" from the CD.
That, as you'd imagine, caught my attention. So I asked what that meant. The woman from Reflections told me that that this sometimes happened when the White House wanted to prevent the public from accessing certain photographs of the president.
When I asked her when this had happened she told she didn't know and wouldn't be at liberty to tell me even if she did.
This was back on January 11th. From what we could tell, the photograph had been removed from the site roughly a week earlier.
Now, we contacted Abramoff's spokesman Andrew Blum. And he declined to comment. We contacted the White House press office but they wouldn't return our calls. Since we can't get the photo in question directly from Reflections or get any of the relevant parties to speak with us, there was really no way for us to proceed.
But early this afternoon, I decided to take one more go at Reflections. I talked to company president Joanne Amos. We went back and forth over various questions about whether photographs at the site were available to the public and why some had been removed. When she, at length, asked me who it was in the picture with the president. I told her we believed it was Jack Abramoff.
Amos very straightforwardly told me that the photographs had been removed and that they had been removed because they showed Abramoff and the president in the same picture. The photos were, she told me, "not relevant."
When I asked her who had instructed her to remove the photos, she told me she was the president of the company. She did it. It was "her business decision" to remove the photographs. She told me she had done so within the last month.
So, here we have it that the president of Reflections admits that she removed photos of Abramoff and the president from their online database. If what her employee told me on the 11th is accurate the photos were also deleted from the CDs they keep on file in their own archives. So the scrub seems to have been pretty thorough.
Did the White House send out the word to deep-six those Bush-Abramoff pics?
Scott McClellan won't answer our questions. But this mystery would not be difficult to solve by a press outlet with sufficient juice to get a question answered by Scott McClellan. Has the White House or anyone working at the White House's behest instructed Reflections Photography to destroy or remove from its archives photographs of President Bush and Jack Abramoff?
Simple question. I doubt it has a simple answer.