The corruption investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff shows the significant political risk that Republican leaders took when they adopted what had once seemed a brilliant strategy for dominating Washington: turning the K Street lobbying corridor into a cog of the GOP political machine.
Abramoff thrived in the political climate fostered by GOP leaders, including Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who have methodically tried to tighten the links between the party in Congress and business lobbyists, through what has become known as the “K Street Project.”
GOP leaders, seeking to harness the financial and political support of K Street, urged lobbyists to support their conservative agenda, give heavily to Republican politicians and hire Republicans for top trade association jobs. Abramoff obliged on every front, and his tentacles of influence reached deep into the upper echelons of Congress and the Bush administration.
Now, in the wake of a plea agreement in which Abramoff will cooperate in an influence-peddling investigation that might target a number of lawmakers, some Republicans are saying that the party will need to take action to avoid being tarnished.
“This is going to be a huge black eye for our party,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior member close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “Denny’s going to have to be very tough and really speak out against people who are indicted. He’s going to have to do it quickly and decisively and frequently.”
Hastert moved Tuesday to inoculate himself from the scandal by announcing that he would give to charity about $60,000 he received from Abramoff and his clients. He is the latest of several lawmakers who have returned or redirected money they received from Abramoff-related sources.
One Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Republicans soon will unveil ethics reform legislation in an effort to blunt criticism from Democrats that they have fostered a “culture of corruption” in Washington.
The controversy may also increase the prospect that Republicans will shake up their leadership after Congress reconvenes at the end of January. House Republican moderates are calling for new leadership elections to permanently replace DeLay, who stepped down temporarily as majority leader after he was indicted in an unrelated case.
“Let’s get a permanent leadership and begin moving forward and overcome the problems that are on the table right now,” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a caucus of GOP moderates in Congress.
Conservatives are worried about possible political fallout for all Republicans, not just those who might be implicated, once Abramoff starts cooperating with prosecutors.
“This is the one thing that could result in a change in who controls the Congress,” said Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist.
Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to corruption charges in connection with allegations that he bilked his Indian tribe clients and conspired to bribe a member of Congress. He also will plead guilty to charges in a separate case in Miami, in connection with a deal to buy a floating casino fleet, SunCruz Casinos.
Although Abramoff admitted Tuesday to illegal conduct in some of his dealings, much of what he did to influence Congress amounted to larger-than-life versions of legal practices common among lobbyists.
Abramoff did not just ply lawmakers with meals; he opened a restaurant and plied them with his meals. He did not simply hand out tickets to sporting events; he offered access to several luxury skyboxes. He did not arrange garden-variety golf outings; he brought golfers to the world’s most exclusive courses.
“The connections between Congress, congressional staff and lobbyists have been a problem for many years,” said Dennis Thompson, author of the book “Ethics in Congress.”
“In the last few years it’s gotten out of control,” Thompson said. “But Abramoff has taken it to a new level.”
For investigators, the question is whether any lawmakers returned Abramoff’s favors by using their offices to benefit him or his clients, which could violate federal law.
Critics of the campaign finance system say it would be a kind of rough justice if Republicans were hobbled by their relationships with a lobbyist, because they worked so hard to increase coordination between their party and K Street.
Republicans said their efforts were no different than what Democrats did for years to raise money and organize support from their constituencies, including labor unions and civil rights advocates. But Democratic critics said the GOP went much further in linking political money to policy outcomes, and that Abramoff was a master at maneuvering in a system that required lobbyists to “pay to play” on Capitol Hill.
“Jack Abramoff is a classic example of the pay-to-play system carried out in the extreme,” said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance watchdog group.
According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 296 members of Congress since 1999 have received contributions from Abramoff, his Indian tribe clients or SunCruz Casinos. Abramoff and his wife contributed $204,253 -- all of it to Republicans.
In addition, Abramoff also leaned on his Indian clients to give to key lawmakers. The center found that Abramoff’s clients gave almost $4.2 million, more than half to Republicans.
His most famous golf outings took members, including DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), to the fabled St. Andrews course in Scotland. Such trips are against House rules if they are paid for by a lobbyist. DeLay and Ney said they believed the trips were properly paid for by a nonprofit group, but prosecutors are reportedly looking at whether Abramoff initially picked up some of the expenses.
Favors done for DeLay and Ney have drawn particular scrutiny because they took aggressive steps to help Abramoff or his clients on issues that seemed remote from their own constituents’ interests. When Abramoff was trying to buy the Florida floating casino fleet, Ney inserted a statement in the Congressional Record critical of Abramoff’s rival.
Abramoff had been hired to stall legislation raising the minimum wage for the U.S.-administered Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and DeLay was credited with helping him do so. DeLay also was an ally in Abramoff’s effort to fight legislation to allow the taxation of Indian tribe gaming revenue.
DeLay and Ney, like other lawmakers who helped Abramoff, said they took action on the merits, not because they received favors from him.
The last time Washington lobbying came under such broad legal scrutiny was in the Abscam scandal of 1980, when an FBI sting operation led to the conviction of seven members of Congress on corruption charges.
That episode was widely viewed as a scandal involving isolated individuals, the proverbial “bad apples.”
But some critics of the current campaign finance system say that the Abramoff scandal could have broader significance if it is seen as an indictment of a corrupt political system, not just individuals.