As Congress sweats, Abramoff will tell all
The lobbyist's plea paves the way for him to name names in a scandal that may snare several lawmakers.
Published January 4, 2006
WASHINGTON - The plea deal worked out by Jack Abramoff could send seismic waves across the political landscape in this congressional election year.
Republicans, who control Congress and the White House, are likely to take the biggest hits.
The GOP has more seats to lose and has closer ties with the former lobbyist. But some Democrats with links to Abramoff and his associates are also expected to be snagged in the influence-peddling net.
While the full dimensions of the corruption investigation are not yet clear, some political consultants and analysts are already comparing its damage potential to the 1992 House banking scandal that led to the retirement or ouster of 77 lawmakers.
"You don't have to be a political genius to sniff the smell of blood in the water," said GOP consultant Rich Galen.
Abramoff, a former $100,000-plus fundraiser for President Bush with ties to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud.
"I plead guilty, your honor," Abramoff said in flat, unemotional tones, accepting a plea bargain that said he had provided lavish trips, golf outings, meals and more to public officials "in exchange for a series of official acts."
"I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I have wronged or caused to suffer," Abramoff said. "Words will not ever be able to express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused."
In one case, he reported payments totaling $50,000 to the wife of a congressional aide to DeLay to help block legislation for a client.
One lawmaker who could be in the crosshairs is Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee. In the Abramoff plea agreement, prosecutors detailed the legislative favors that Ney - identified as "Representative No. 1" in court papers - allegedly performed for Abramoff's clients after receiving political contributions, overseas travel and other gifts.
Also facing questions is Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader. Reid has denied that his intercession in an Indian-casino case that would have helped Abramoff was linked to a $5,000 contribution from an Abramoff client. Reid received $40,000 in Abramoff-related campaign contributions.
Abramoff also admitted defrauding four Indian tribes and other clients, taking millions in kickbacks from a one-time business partner, misusing a charity he had established and failing to pay income taxes on millions of ill-gotten gains.
Abramoff faces as much as 11 years in federal prison as well as fines in connection with his guilty pleas on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. The precise penalty is to be determined in part by the extent of his cooperation with prosecutors. Together with his former business partner, Michael Scanlon, he is expected to face restitution costs of $25-million.
Abramoff is also expected to plead guilty today to additional charges in Miami in connection with the 2000 purchase of a fleet of gambling boats.
The plea cleared the way for Abramoff's cooperation with federal prosecutors in bringing charges against former business and political associates.
At the Justice Department, officials said they intend to make use of e-mails and other material in Abramoff's possession as part of an investigation that is reported to be focusing on as many as 20 members of Congress and aides.
"This investigation continues . .. however long it takes, wherever it leads," said Alice Fisher, assistant attorney general.
"This is going to grow and multiply," said Bill Mateja, a former top official in the Bush Justice Department who's now a Dallas lawyer. "If I were on Capitol Hill, I would be shaking in my boots. Because if anyone knows where the skeletons are buried, it's Jack Abramoff."
The timing couldn't be worse politically, especially for Republicans. Lawmakers who may be indicted could find themselves coming to trial this summer, just ahead of the midterm elections. About the same time, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case.
DeLay, who had to step down as majority leader in September after a grand jury in Texas indicted him in a campaign finance investigation, is awaiting a trial date.
The impact on DeLay from the Abramoff case is unclear. While DeLay's former aide Tony Rudy is alleged to have accepted $50,000 from Abramoff, the court papers allege no wrongdoing by DeLay.
Regardless, speculation is swirling over whom Abramoff might bring down and on the possible fallout for others.
"Most seats in Congress are relatively safe this year. But they are not safe from a tsunami," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Iraq, plus economic problems, plus these scandals, could produce a tsunami."
People need to know "that government is not for sale," Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in pledging to pursue the investigation "wherever it goes."
For months, federal prosecutors have focused on whether Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars and used improper influence on members of Congress. Tribes represented by the lobbyist contributed millions of dollars in casino income to congressional campaigns.
Some lawmakers have already returned contributions. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on Tuesday joined the list. Others who have done so are Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.; Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.; Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
While Abramoff and his clients gave to both Democrats and Republicans, Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the scandal "will disproportionately affect Republicans. They are the majority party and because Abramoff is a conservative Republican."
Information from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Knight Ridder news service and Cox News Service was used in this report.
AGE; BIRTH DATE: 46; born Feb. 28, 1959, in New Jersey.
EDUCATION: Beverly Hills High School, Brandeis graduate, Georgetown University law degree.
EXPERIENCE: Lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig, January 2001-March 2004; founder of Eshkol Academy, a school for Orthodox Jews in Montgomery County, Md., 2001; lobbyist with Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, 1994-2001; Hollywood film producer as president of Regency Entertainment Group, 1986-94; director, Citizens for America, pro-Reagan lobbying group, 1985; chairman of college Republicans and member of executive committee, Republican National Committee, early to mid 1980s.
FAMILY: Wife, Pam; five children.
QUOTE: "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail to an ally about an American Indian tribe's contributions to Democrats.
[Last modified January 4, 2006, 01:08:07]
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