Talk of Plea by Lobbyist Has Hill on Edge
Jack Abramoff is hardly a household name outside the nation’s capital. But in Washington’s corridors of power, his name is spreading waves of anxiety about a possible political corruption scandal that could tarnish members of Congress, their aides and Capitol Hill lobbyists.
Abramoff, a once-powerful lobbyist who is the subject of a federal influence-peddling investigation, is considering a deal to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, according to sources familiar with the probe. That could open the prospect that Abramoff will implicate any number of lawmakers and aides who were part of his vast network of access.
The case has already turned an unflattering spotlight on the ways of Washington. It has brought scrutiny to lawmakers who had dealings with Abramoff, including dozens who accepted campaign contributions, golf trips abroad and other perks, such as the use of his skyboxes at various Washington sports venues.
Some lawmakers and party leaders fear that repercussions from the federal probe could produce the most far-reaching congressional scandal since 1992, when it was disclosed that 350 House members had been allowed to bounce checks with impunity at the House bank. The political backlash was strong enough that it drove dozens of members from Congress.
Even before Abramoff goes to trial or enters a plea agreement, some lawmakers are moving to distance themselves from the unfolding scandal. A growing number have repaid or given away money they received from Abramoff and his associates. Others are scrutinizing more carefully the sources of funding for trips.
“This is an environment in which people are looking at everything you do and write,” said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who has told his staff to accept no offers to fly on private planes, even if doing so is legal.
At issue is an investigation that initially centered on charges that Abramoff and an associate bilked Indian tribe clients of millions of dollars. The probe has reportedly broadened into a far-reaching investigation of lawmakers and congressional aides who may have accepted contributions, trips and other favors in exchange for doing Abramoff’s bidding.
Abramoff’s former business associate, Michael P.S. Scanlon, last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials and to defraud tribes. He promised to cooperate with the investigation.
In separate federal proceedings in Florida, Abramoff has been indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with his purchase of the Florida-based SunCruz Casinos gambling fleet. His co-defendant, Adam R. Kidan, last week pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Abramoff. Abramoff’s trial is set to begin Jan. 9.
Two sources familiar with the investigation said negotiations were continuing on a possible Abramoff plea agreement, which could lead to the former lobbyist’s cooperation in the federal corruption probe.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. One source said it was not clear when or whether a plea agreement would be reached. But reports of the negotiations, which appeared first in the Miami Herald last week, have ratcheted up the anxiety level in Washington.
“Washington is holding its collective breath,” said one Republican lobbyist who did not want to comment for the record on a scandal affecting his profession and political allies.
The concern is widespread because Abramoff’s reach into the Capitol was so deep. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 210 current members of Congress have received contributions from Abramoff, his Indian tribe clients or SunCruz Casinos since 1999.
Most received less than $10,000, but 25 lawmakers received $21,500 or more. Twenty were Republicans and five were Democrats, but none of the Democrats received money directly from Abramoff.
One top recipient was House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who received $2,500 from Abramoff and $66,500 from Indian tribes that were his clients. Another was Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who received $30,500 from the tribes.
Although the allegations against Abramoff are complex and little-known by voters, he is proving to be a political liability for the lawmakers most closely tied to him.
Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose office received a federal grand jury subpoena for documents and testimony, has drawn scrutiny for aiding Abramoff in 2000 when the lobbyist was trying to buy SunCruz. Ney attacked the then-owner of the gambling fleet in remarks that were placed in the Congressional Record.
Ney also has drawn unwelcome attention for taking a 2002 golf trip to Scotland arranged by Abramoff and paid for by an Abramoff charity, according to records released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It is against House rules for a lobbyist to pay for a congressman’s trip.
Ney maintained that he thought the golf trip had been properly paid for by a think tank. Still, he faces a tougher fight for reelection than expected.
Rep. Tom DeLay’s association with Abramoff has complicated the Texas Republican’s struggle to get his career back on track after his indictment on unrelated money-laundering charges. DeLay also had joined a Scotland golf outing arranged for by Abramoff. According to the Washington Post and the National Journal, Abramoff initially picked up some of the expenses of the trip, a possible violation of House rules. DeLay, like Ney, said he thought the golf trip had been properly paid for by a think tank.
Other lawmakers facing 2006 election challenges have been trying to distance themselves from the scandal by returning or giving away Abramoff-related money. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who is considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2006, announced recently that he would return or give away $150,000 he received from Abramoff and his clients. He is promoting a bill, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to tighten lobbying rules.
The first Democratic senator to divest Abramoff-related money was Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who was the senior Democrat on a Senate committee that held high-profile hearings on the lobbyist’s alleged bilking of Indian tribes. After those hearings, the Associated Press reported that Dorgan did not disclose actions he had taken that were favorable to Abramoff’s clients around the time he had collected donations from them. Dorgan said he did not know Abramoff, but he decided to give back $67,000 in donations.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) soon followed suit, giving $18,892 in Abramoff-related money to tribal colleges in Montana.
Democrats hope the scandal will bolster their 2006 campaign theme that Republicans have brought a “culture of corruption and cronyism” to the capital.
Republicans seek to neutralize the scandal by portraying it as a bipartisan matter. Bush recently called Abramoff an “equal money dispenser,” and a National Republican Senatorial Committee analysis found that 40 of the 45 Democrats in the Senate had received campaign funds from Abramoff clients.