Abramoff opened Signatures in Feb. 2002 to critical acclaim. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, the restaurant quickly became a power dining spot. Lobbyists and politicians frequented the jackets-only place, dining on chef Mourou Ouattara's award-winning cuisine while eyeballing the signed historic artifacts and political memorabilia that adorned its walls. Its motto: "Liberal portions in a conservative setting."
Signatures wasn't cheap. Mourou (the Ivory Coast native went by his first name) was the winner of a local "Iron Chef" competition and a nominee for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington's Chef of the Year. Most entrees on his menu at Signatures cost at least $30; prices topped out with a Kobe beef sirloin steak priced at $74. The tasting menu went for $140.
Yet many people ate at Signatures for free. During a 17-month period in 2002 and 2003, the restaurant gave away $180,000 in food and drink-seven percent of the gross. Abramoff's personal tab topped $45,000.
That's a whopping amount of comped food and drink, but there's nothing illegal about giving it away. However, two things about this largesse caught the prosecutor's eye.
One, records indicated that Abramoff subsequently marked up and charged off these comped meals to the four Indian tribes who had hired him as a lobbyist to represent their gambling endeavors. That led to the charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion that will soon have Abramoff in jail.
The second was the identity of the people Abramoff fed for free. It's an aspect of the case that could have serious political reverberations. The investigation turned up a written list of 18 people, including then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay, whom Abramoff had declared were not to be charged for meals at Signatures. Employees told investigators that many names on the list were congressmen who were considered regulars.
When this information surfaced, the named individuals were fuzzy about the details of who had eaten what, when, and who had paid the tab. Yet they were crystal clear in their certainty that they had broken no rules while dining at Signatures. Congressional ethics rules limit gifts like this to $100 per year per from "personal friends" like Abramoff, and any single gift must be worth less than $50.
Here's what Bob Ney's (R-OH) office had to say about his dining activity at Signatures. "There were times when meals and/or drinks were bought by him (Ney) or for him by other members, lobbyists, or other persons, all within the limits of the gift rules." Stonewalling at its finest, to be sure. The problem is that several former Signatures employees say Ney dined at the restaurant frequently without paying. And when Ney's campaign and Political Action Committee hosted a fundraiser at Signatures, it did not pay for the event, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) said he ate at Signatures frequently. He told the New York Times that "Just because you are a member of Congress doesn't mean you have to give up your friendships. It was dinner with a friend and I didn't think of it as a gift."
Signatures employees cite, and records confirm, several other prominent congressmen who routinely ate at Signatures without paying. Those congressmen say it was all within the rules.
As one blogger noted, Signatures "was more than just at swanky restaurant at which Jack entertained powerful guests. It was part of a vertically integrated machinery aimed at buying influence, and was as much a part of his operation as his luxury skyboxes at the MCI Center, FedEx Field and Camden Yards." The issue: "Signatures, combined with those skyboxes were, it seems, used routinely essentially to launder tribal money and help members of congress evade campaign finance laws and House disclosure requirements."
That part of the story remains to be played out. Some Washington pundits doubt that any playing out will occur before this year's congressional elections. The big question: Will Abramoff say he comped meals with the expectation that subsequent favors would be granted? If he does, watch out.
So what about Signatures? The once-humming restaurant closed its doors last November. Abramoff had sold it to a group of investors in the summer of 2005, but they said they couldn't make it work. The restaurant's splashy website is still up (www.signatures-dc.com), and you can still click on the link that gives you a chance to "suggest a new name for Signatures."
As for chef/partner Mourou, he's available. He told the Washington Post that "I've been looking to open my own place for a while, but I was in a contract and now I'm out. It makes it easier." If you need a fine chef with a really interesting background, Mourou could be your guy.