WASHINGTON—The nation's capital braced Tuesday for a mushrooming political scandal as a well-connected lobbyist pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and prepared to testify about members of Congress caught in his web of corruption.
Jack Abramoff, 46, invoked God as he apologized and pleaded guilty before a federal judge to one charge each of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison—and another potential plea in a Florida indictment related to his purchase of a fleet of casino cruise ships from a man who was murdered a few months later.
By itself, the fall of a high-flying lobbyist who collected $80 million in fees from casino-rich Indian tribes, wined and dined politicians at his own upscale Washington restaurant, Signatures, and flew them abroad for golf outings was a dramatic tale.
But it was the likelihood that Abramoff now will help federal prosecutors go after members of Congress that gripped official Washington.
"This is going to grow and multiply," said Bill Mateja, a former top official in the Bush Justice Department who's now a Dallas lawyer. "If I were on Capitol Hill, I would be shaking in my boots. Because if anyone knows where the skeletons are buried, it's Jack Abramoff."
The Abramoff case could rival or surpass the 1980 Abscam case, in which an FBI sting trapped members of Congress taking bribes. Six members of the House of Representatives and one senator were convicted then.
It also could make it easier for Americans to see the free flow of money and lobbyist influence in Washington and affect the way they vote in this year's congressional elections. Democrats hope to benefit, but polls so far show both parties losing public esteem.
Justice Department officials said they hoped their extensive investigation would send a message about corruption.
"Government officials and government action are not for sale," said Alice Fisher, an assistant attorney general. "The Justice Department will aggressively investigate and prosecute these types of cases, which have a devastating impact on the public's trust of government."
The scandal threatens to engulf several high-ranking lawmakers from both major political parties, including:
_ Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, whose Web page identifies him as the "11th most powerful member of Congress." He took a golf trip to Scotland on Abramoff's tab, but says he did nothing wrong.
_ Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was forced to step down last fall as House majority leader when he was indicted on a campaign-finance charge that isn't related to the Abramoff case. DeLay denies any wrongdoing in taking overseas trips financed by Abramoff. His spokesman said Tuesday that all of DeLay's actions were approved by the House ethics committee.
_ Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., the secretary of the House Republican Conference, who took campaign contributions from Abramoff and whose wife was hired by an Abramoff foundation. Doolittle denies that his intervention in a California Indian casino case, which would've helped Abramoff, was connected to his relations to the lobbyist.
_ Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader, who's denied that his intercession in an Indian-casino case that would've helped Abramoff was linked to a $5,000 contribution from an Abramoff client.
"Abramoff probably had relationships with lots more members of Congress," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and who's supported Democrats. "He's clearly been spilling his guts for several months."
Abramoff's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that his client "intends to continue to work with the Justice Department and others to fully resolve all matters of interest, to provide restitution to anyone he has harmed, and to seek absolution from all."
Abramoff would serve nine and a half to 11 years of his sentence under federal guidelines. That could be reduced further with his cooperation in the investigation. He also faces a fine of more than $750,000 and mandatory restitution estimated to be about $26.7 million—$1.7 million of that to the Internal Revenue Service for evading taxes, plus an undetermined amount of back taxes.
The lobbyist was contrite as he faced U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
"Your honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused," he said.
"All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer. I will work hard to earn that redemption."
The most far-reaching charge said Abramoff corruptly influenced public officials and their relatives.
"Abramoff and others would offer and provide things of value to public officials, including trips, campaign contributions, meals and entertainment in exchange for agreements that the public officials would use their official positions and influence to benefit defendant Abramoff's clients and ... businesses," the federal charge said.
It didn't identify any public officials by name.
But it did say Abramoff influenced a House Committee chairman identified as "Representative A." It said Abramoff used "a lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world famous courses, tickets to sporting events ... regular meals at Abramoff's upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions" to win official favors from the congressman.
Representative A is apparently Ney.
An Abramoff partner, Michael Scanlon, who formerly had worked for DeLay, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to bribe Ney. Ney has denied wrongdoing.
"At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," Ney said in a statement.
The plea bargain also said Abramoff had defrauded several Indian tribes by charging them huge fees while lying about his work or the way that money was funneled to him. For example, it said he urged them to hire other firms while concealing that he got a 50 percent kickback from more than $54 million that the tribes paid those firms.
Abramoff greased his relationships with golf trips, meals at his restaurant and seats in his luxury skyboxes at Washington sports events. He and his clients also contributed freely to campaigns, $4.4 million since 2000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
With the investigation threatening to spread, several members of Congress recently returned campaign contributions to Abramoff, a trend that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., joined Tuesday evening. He announced that he'd return $70,000 in contributions from Abramoff-related clients, including Indian tribes.
Previously, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., returned $18,892. That amount included $1,892, the value of seats in Abramoff's skybox at a Washington sports arena, which Baucus had used but never reported.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., gave back $67,000 in Abramoff-related donations.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., returned more than $150,000 and summed up what probably is the prevailing attitude in Congress toward the once-popular lobbyist.
"This Abramoff guy is a bad guy," Burns told a Montana television station last month. "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."
(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn and Maria Recio contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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