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Lobbyist case has Tampa tangle

A trip to Super Bowl XXXV was among the things Jack Abramoff gave legislators and aides in exchange for "official acts," his plea deal says.

Published January 9, 2006

WASHINGTON - A trip by congressional staffers to the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa has emerged as a key part of the federal investigation into the scandal involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and members of the House and Senate.

Abramoff arranged for Capitol Hill staffers to fly to Tampa and attend the game as part of his lobbying efforts on behalf of Indian tribes and the SunCruz casino ships.

Court records indicate Abramoff offered to fly U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and members of his staff to Tampa for the game. Ney and his aides did not take the trip, but at least three other congressional staffers did, including a senior aide to then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay.

When Abramoff last week pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion, the Tampa trip was cited in a section titled "Corruption of Public Officials." It said he and colleague Michael Scanlon offered "things of value" such as the Super Bowl trip to an unidentified member of Congress and his staff. Ney is not mentioned by name, but the details clearly indicate it is him.

The plea agreement, signed by Abramoff and federal prosecutors, says the Tampa trip was part of an elaborate quid pro quo . It says Abramoff, Scanlon and others "offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence and agreements to provide official action and influence."

The trip to Tampa

Super Bowls are a magnet for the rich and powerful.

Corporations and political groups use the game to entertain employees, customers and donors. The companies and groups often provide hotel rooms, tickets to the game, parties and tours of nearby attractions.

Super Bowl XXXV, held at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 28, 2001, between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens, was no exception. As many as half the fans attended courtesy of big companies such as Ford, Motorola and Coca-Cola. Around town were glitzy parties hosted by the NFL, Maxim magazine and many others.

Few details are known about Abramoff's trip. The plea agreement filed in court last week said the trip was offered to Ney and his staff but did not mention anyone else. The trip also was mentioned in Scanlon's plea agreement, which uses identical language.

Ney and his staff have said they did not take the trip, but Will M. Brooke, then chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, and former Burns staffer Ryan Thomas, who worked for the Senate Appropriations Committee, have said they went on the trip. The Washington Post has reported that Tim Berry, a top aide to DeLay, and Tony Rudy, a former DeLay aide who went to work for Abramoff, also went.

The group flew to Tampa in a corporate jet leased by SunCruz, according to the Post.

While in the Tampa Bay area, the staffers apparently went to the game using tickets provided by Abramoff. The tickets had a face value of $325 to $400, but groups often pay thousands because they have to buy them from brokers.

Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra declined to comment on the Tampa trip because it "is part of an ongoing investigation."

A gambling cruise

During their visit to the bay area, the staffers were taken on a SunCruz gambling trip and were offered $500 in gambling chips, the Post has reported, citing "sources knowledgeable about the trip."

If the congressional aides took such a trip, it's likely the aides went to the Treasure Island side of John's Pass, where local SunCruz passengers boarded until the company moved in 2004. At the time, Abramoff, with Adam Kidan and another partner, owned the boat and several others around Florida.

According to Coast Guard records, the boat in John's Pass around the time of the Super Bowl was the SunCruz V, a 140-foot vessel that can carry 560 people, although a cruise typically carries 100 to 200 people.

Passengers, who usually pay about $10 for the trip, have to wait until the ship is in international waters before gambling. When the ship crosses that invisible line, covers come off the gaming tables and the slot machines come to life. Cruises last about 5 hours.

Abramoff and his partners didn't own the boat for long, and according to government lawyers, their brief ownership was a fraud. Abramoff and Kidan have pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy in buying the cruise line.

Helping Abramoff

In Congress, Ney and Burns have helped Abramoff and his clients, according to Abramoff's plea agreement.

Ney helped Abramoff's effort to gain control of SunCruz by placing comments in the Congressional Record that were "calculated to pressure the then-owner to sell on terms favorable to Abramoff and his partners," according to Abramoff's plea agreement.

Ney helped a telecommunications company - an Abramoff client - win a congressional contract.

Calls to Ney's congressional office and his attorney, Mark Tuohey, were not returned. Ney's attorney told Newsweek magazine that Ney was "duped" by Abramoff and Scanlon. A spokesman for Ney told the magazine the Ohio Republican did not do "anything illegal or improper."

Burns, a Montana Republican who received about $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, his firm and his clients since 1999, helped secure a $3-million school construction grant for one of Abramoff's tribal clients, the wealthy Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan. Burns supported the effort despite opposition from the Interior Department, which concluded the school was not eligible for the grant money.

Burns has said he supported the request because he was asked to by Michigan's senators, both Democrats. But e-mails released during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation indicate Abramoff lobbied Burns directly on the grant.

Burns has distanced himself from Abramoff, telling a Montana television station, "I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again. I wish he'd never been born, to be right honest with you."

Rudy, Berry, Brooke and Thomas did not return phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment for this story. Rudy left DeLay's staff in 2001 to join Abramoff's lobbying firm, as did Brooke in 2003. Berry left DeLay's staff last year to become a senior lobbyist for Time Warner.

None of them filed a report for the trip, as congressional rules would require for a privately paid trip to a meeting or speaking engagement. Rules allow them to accept travel expenses for meetings or "fact-finding" trips, but there's been no indication there were any such events over Super Bowl weekend. Other rules prohibit members of Congress and staffers from accepting a gift valued at $50 or more, or a total of $100 or more in a single year.

Burns' attorney said in a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee that the trips of Thomas and Brooke were allowed because the aides were told the trips were paid for by Indian tribes, which are permitted under Senate rules.

There is no such exemption in House rules. A DeLay spokesman told the Post that Berry thought it was a Republican fundraising trip allowable under House rules.

Now that Abramoff and Scanlon have pleaded guilty and agreed to help prosecutors, the investigation is expanding. Political analysts say the Abramoff scandal could have far-reaching implications in Congress and this year's elections. More charges are expected, with possibly more than a dozen lawmakers implicated.

"These trips used to happen all the time. You don't see members or their staffs going on these kind of trips anymore," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "That's why this should have raised flags immediately. Even for those who went, it should have raised red flags."

--Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which used information from the Washington Post, Newsweek magazine and the Billings Gazette.

[Last modified January 15, 2006, 10:35:45]

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