Judge sentences former lobbyist Abramoff to four years

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Jack Abramoff, the one-time super lobbyist who wined and dined the Republican political elite, was sentenced to four years in prison Thursday for his role in an influence-peddling scheme that ushered in sweeping lobbying reforms in Washington.

Abramoff could've received up to 11 years in prison, but Judge Ellen S. Huvelle decided he deserved a more lenient sentence for helping the Justice Department convict a congressman and nine others. Huvelle, however, rejected calls from prosecutors to hand down an even lower sentence.

As part of a deal with prosecutors in 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to tax evasion, fraud, and conspiracy to bribe public officials in connection with defrauding casino-rich Indian tribes and encouraging former congressional staffers to violate a one-year lobbying ban. The judge ordered Abramoff to continue to pay more than $23 million in restitution to his former tribal clients.

Abramoff — once a high-flying lobbyist who courted lawmakers and White House officials over meals at his Washington restaurant, Signatures — appeared in court dressed in a t-shirt and khaki pants. At times chocking back tears, he told the judge he was a humbled and "broken man."

"I'm not the same man who happily and arrogantly engaged in a lifestyle of political and business corruption," he said.

Abramoff, 49, said he was repentant and now asks himself, "How did it come to this?"

"Perhaps it was out of an arrogant self righteousness," he said.

Defense attorney Abbe Lowell described Abramoff as "modern-day 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'" who generously gave to charities as he lavished public officials with meals, trips and sports tickets to gain political access for his clients.

The judge, who received 355 letters from victims and Abramoff's supporters, said she struggled to balance his crimes against his cooperation with the government.

While Huvelle said Abramoff had provided prosecutors with significant help in their investigations, she said she felt compelled to give him more time than prosecutors had requested because of Abramoff's corrupting influence on the political system.

"I feel the victims are the public," she said.

Members of the tribes he once represented differed on whether his sentence was appropriate, with two who appeared in court urging the judge to hand down the maximum time and one urging leniency.

Bernie Sprague, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, said Abramoff did not appear contrite and contended Abramoff had "totally destroyed" the tribe and tarnished its reputation to the point that politicians will no longer work on its behalf.

"It's been a real struggle for us to keep it together," he said.

But prosecutors credited Abramoff for spending more than 3,000 hours working with more than 100 law-enforcement officials in their ongoing investigation.

Because he's already served nearly two years for his role in a separate case involving the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino cruise boats in Florida, he could end up serving six years in prison, not counting credit for good behavior.

Abramoff said he planned to repair his reputation when he's released.

"I want more than life itself to make things right," he said. "I am sorry, so sorry, that I have put everyone through this."

Abramoff's sentencing signals the wide-ranging influence peddling investigation could be drawing to a close.

When Abramoff pleaded guilty in 2006, as many as half a dozen lawmakers, including former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. John Doolittle of California, were said to be under scrutiny for their dealings with his former lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.

While prosecutors have convicted 10 people, including five former congressional staffers, former Interior Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, and former Justice Department lawyer Robert Coughlin, former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is the only lawmaker in the group. Earlier this month, Ney was released from prison after serving about a year and a half of his original 2 1/2-year sentence.

Prosecutors have refused to say whether any other former or current legislators were still under investigation.

Federal agents are investigating former Abramoff lobbyist and Doolittle aide Kevin Ring for his dealings with congressional staffers and lawmakers.

Doolittle, whose house was searched last year, has said prosecutors believe his wife was paid by Abramoff for work she didn't do as a way to pass money to the congressman. After the raid, Doolittle announced he would not be running for re-election in November.

Earlier this year, the FBI raided the offices of a New York lobbying firm in connection with similar questions about the ex-wife of former Republican Rep. John Sweeney.

DeLay also was scrutinized for his ties to Abramoff, including for taking overseas trips paid for in part by Abramoff's firm, and for pressuring administration officials to shut down an Indian-owned casino that Abramoff wanted closed.

All three legislators have maintained their innocence and prosecutors won't say whether those investigations have stalled.

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