From the White House to Capitol Hill, prominent Republicans scrambled Wednesday to shed campaign contributions linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as his guilty pleas in fraud and corruption cases opened a painful debate within the party over its leadership and direction.
President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and DeLay’s temporary successor in that post, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, joined a lengthening list of politicians whose campaign committees have returned or donated to charities money they received from Abramoff, his associates and his clients.
More lawmakers were expected to follow suit in what was becoming a stampede to distance themselves from a lobbyist who once enjoyed easy access to Washington’s corridors of power.
The spreading Abramoff scandal is considered so politically toxic that some Republicans urged the party Wednesday to make broad changes if it hoped to preserve its control of Congress in November’s elections. These moves include the quick selection of a permanent House majority leader -- which would block DeLay’s efforts to return to the position -- and a party commitment to champion lobbying reforms.
The cloud surrounding Abramoff grew Wednesday when he pleaded guilty in Miami to federal fraud charges arising from his purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a fleet of gambling boats in Florida. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty in Washington to three federal felonies stemming from his lobbying activities.
Anxieties on Capitol Hill are mounting because Abramoff -- once a key player in the vaunted “K Street” lobbying project that DeLay built into a powerful tool to help maintain Republican majorities in the House and Senate -- is cooperating with federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging corruption investigation.
The probe is focused on whether at least a half-dozen members of Congress and several aides traded legislative action in return for lavish trips, gifts and campaign contributions orchestrated by Abramoff.
Although some Democrats received Abramoff-linked contributions and favors, the lobbyist -- a Republican activist since college -- spent most of his time and money helping the GOP.
Records have shown that Abramoff helped funnel at least $100,000 to Bush’s reelection campaign. Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Wednesday that the campaign had decided to donate to the American Heart Assn. $6,000 in contributions connected to Abramoff. She said that amount covered separate $2,000 donations from Abramoff, his wife and an Indian tribe in Michigan that he represented.
A spokeswoman for DeLay, who had close ties to Abramoff, announced he would donate to charities in Texas $15,000 given to his campaign committee by Abramoff and his wife.
A spokesman for Frist said a $2,000 contribution from the Michigan tribe that Abramoff represented would be given back to them, and Blunt’s office said he would be donating to charity $8,500 his campaign received in Abramoff-linked money.
Among those calling for change within the Republican Party was Vin Weber, a GOP lobbyist and former House member from Minnesota with close ties to the Bush administration. “If they don’t take fairly dramatic action and reclaim the mantle of reform, [Republicans] are going to lose the House,” Weber said.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he thought DeLay was no longer in a position to be House leader. “They have to elect a new majority leader,” Gingrich said. “My bet is they will.”
Under GOP House rules, DeLay gave up his leadership position when he was indicted late last year in Texas on money-laundering charges. DeLay has expressed confidence he will be cleared of the charges and has sought a speedy trial. But so far, his lawyers have been unable to expedite his case.
“At some point it goes ‘Tilt,’ ” Gingrich said. “You don’t have to say Tom is guilty of anything to say they need a new majority leader. A very significant number of House members said to me [Wednesday] morning that the entire world has changed in the last few days” because of the Abramoff scandal.
If House Republicans decide to choose a permanent replacement for DeLay, many Republicans expect Blunt to be challenged by Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education Committee.
Don Seymour Jr., Boehner’s press secretary, denied reports that the lawmaker had begun calling colleagues to line up support. “Some members have approached him, but he isn’t approaching them,” Seymour said. “He hasn’t asked for a single vote.”
In the Senate, Frist said that after consulting with members, he would “examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying.”
Republicans have sought to portray the Abramoff scandal as one that potentially touches members of both parties, pointing out that Democrats took campaign money from the lobbyists and those connected to him.
Even as the Democratic National Committee has called on Republicans to give back Abramoff-related donations, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has declined to give back the estimated $60,000 he received.
“Jack Abramoff is a Republican operative and this is a Republican scandal,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman. “Sen. Reid has done nothing wrong and sees no need to return” the donations linked to Abramoff.
In Miami on Wednesday, Abramoff, in a brief appearance before U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, admitted that he fraudulently conspired in 2000 to falsely assure lenders that he and a partner had put up $23 million of their own money to purchase SunCruz.
As a result, investors headed by Abramoff and his partner received a loan of about $60 million to enable them to purchase the flotilla of gambling ships for $147.5 million.
His admission of guilt was part of an agreement with the government under which four other counts pending against him were dismissed.
Wearing a baseball cap and a charcoal-gray suit, Abramoff, 46, offered terse answers to the judge’s questions.
“Guilty, your honor,” Abramoff said in a soft voice, when asked how he was pleading.
The deal Abramoff struck with federal prosecutors commits him to “providing truthful and complete information and testimony, and producing documents, records and other evidence” at any trial or grand jury proceeding where the government requires his presence, court documents show.
The lobbyist’s former partner in the gambling ship deal, Adam R. Kidan, pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy and wire fraud. He is to be sentenced on March 1.
For the crimes he acknowledged in Miami, Abramoff could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison and face $500,000 in fines. He faces a similar prison sentence in the case based in Washington. He is likely to serve concurrently whatever sentences he receives in the two cases.
In Washington on Tuesday, Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding several Indian tribes of millions of dollars, conspiracy to bribe public officials and tax evasion.
Court documents show that an unidentified House member received several benefits and favors from Abramoff in exchange for a series of official actions. One of those was the placement of a statement in the Congressional Record critical of the former owner of SunCruz, Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis.
Aides to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) have acknowledged that he was the unidentified congressman. Ney has said he did nothing wrong, and that he was duped by Abramoff.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.
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Giving it back
President Bush and many lawmakers have announced that they are refunding or giving to charity some or all of the donations they or their political action committees received from once-powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his associates or clients.
* President Bush, $6,000 from Abramoff, his wife and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan for the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign is being donated to the American Heart Assn. Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for the campaign.
* House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). A spokesman would not say how much money Hastert received or planned to donate.
* House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), $8,500 to charity.
* Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), $15,000 to charities in suburban Houston.
* Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), $2,000 will be returned to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.
* Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), $11,000 to the American Indian Center of Chicago and the American Indian Health Service of Chicago.
* Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, $12,500 to the Salvation Army.
* Thad Cochran of Mississippi, $8,000 to Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund.
* Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, $1,000 to charity.
* Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, $1,000 to charity.
* Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, $12,000 to Marguerite’s Place.
* Jon Kyl of Arizona, refunding $4,000 to three Indian tribes.
* Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, $2,000 to charity.
* Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, $8,500 to be refunded or donated to charity.
* John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, $3,000 to charity.
* Craig Thomas of Wyoming, $8,000 to victims of the 2005 tornado in Wright, Wyo.
* John Thune of South Dakota, $2,000 to White Buffalo Calf Woman Society.
* Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, $2,000 to charity.
* Tim Johnson of South Dakota, $8,250 to Billy Mills -- Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
* Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, $5,000 to the American Indian College Fund.
* Eric Cantor of Virginia, about $10,000 to the William Byrd Community House.
* Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, $250 to charity.
* Kay Granger of Texas, $2,000 to Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth.
* Melissa A. Hart of Pennsylvania, $2,000 to two women’s shelters.
* J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, $2,250 to the Salvation Army Katrina Disaster Fund.
* Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, $1,000 to charity.
* Donald Manzullo of Illinois, $1,500 to be returned to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
* Marilyn N. Musgrave of Colorado, $1,000 to Crossroads Safehouse.
* Bob Ney of Ohio, $9,000 to charity.
* Charles W. “Chip” Pickering of Mississippi, at least $2,500 to the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund.
* Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, $949 to Operation Phone Home.
* Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, $1,000 to charity.
* John E. Sweeney of New York, $2,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
* Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, 2,000 to charity.
* Jerry Weller of Illinois, at least $500 to charity.
* Roger Wicker of Mississippi, $250 to Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund.
* Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, $1,000 to the Great Southwest Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
* Henry Cuellar of Texas, $500 to be returned to the Tigua Tribe of El Paso.
* Eliot L. Engel of New York, $1,000 to be returned to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.
* Lane Evans of Illinois, $2,000 to Community Caring Conference.
* Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, $1,000 to an animal shelter.
* Nita M. Lowey of New York, $2,000 to be refunded.
* Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, $6,950 to be refunded.
* Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), $18,892 to seven tribal colleges.
* Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), $42,000 to charity.
* Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), about $150,000 donated to Native American charities and refunded.
* Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), $3,750 to North Dakota’s tribal colleges.
* Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), $67,000 refunded.
* Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), $6,000 to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
* Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), $19,900 given to charity.