News

Congressman queried on Abramoff ties

WASHINGTON—In a burst of activity over the last eight days, FBI agents and federal prosecutors have won a guilty plea from a former congressional aide, implicated two more House of Representatives members and put the scandal surrounding onetime super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's influence-peddling back into the headlines.

The pace of the inquiry, which now has bagged a veteran congressman, a deputy Cabinet secretary, a White House aide and eight others, appears to be accelerating.

And it portends to be a major new headache for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans still reeling from a furor over the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys and from last fall's election, which put Democrats back in command on Capitol Hill.

The newest figure to face serious FBI scrutiny is Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., who said bureau agents have asked for details of a 2003 golf trip to Scotland that he took with Abramoff—a trip that the House ethics committee recently found violated House rules.

Last week, FBI agents raided the home of Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.

And on Tuesday, former congressional aide Mark Zachares pleaded guilty to helping Abramoff obtain government business and inside information in exchange for cash, gifts and job favors. Zachares was an aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, when Young chaired the House transportation committee.

Abramoff may have provided the impetus for the flurry of public activity by cooperating extensively with investigators in return for promises of leniency as he tries to wriggle out of a prison sentence that theoretically could jail him for up to 30 years.

"He's talking so much he doesn't have time to eat," one lawyer involved in the matter quipped, insisting upon anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. "Everybody who had business dealings with the guy should be nervous."

Abramoff, who once held court on a daily basis in a swank restaurant near the Capitol, pleaded guilty in January 2006 to conspiring to defraud casino-rich Indian tribes of more than $20 million and to defrauding his former law and lobbying firm. He also pleaded guilty to three criminal charges in Florida for defrauding lenders when he and an associate purchased SunCruz casinos, a fleet of gambling boats.

Abramoff has yet to be sentenced in Washington, and prosecutors last month asked a federal judge in Miami to lighten the Florida sentence of five years and 10 months because of his continuing cooperation.

Already, with Abramoff's help, former Ohio Republican congressman Bob Ney got a 30-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements. Aides to Ney and former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas also pleaded guilty to felony charges.

Feeney is among those who might be nervous over the ex-lobbyist's chatter, said the knowledgeable lawyer. The third-term congressman reported accepting $5,643 for the golfing trip and wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury in that amount last January when the House ethics committee found it encroached on rules barring travel with lobbyists.

However, Feeney, Abramoff and others, including transportation committee aide Zachares, flew home in a luxurious Gulfstream V private jet, the lawyer said, and Feeney's check understated the true cost of the trip.

Zachares' punishment will likely be limited to two years in prison under a deal with the government that requires him and his wife, Cynthia, to cooperate with prosecutors.

Calling it "an embarrassing episode," Feeney's office said in a statement that he "anticipates voluntarily cooperating with the Justice Department in any further investigation of this trip and looks forward to promptly resolving this matter."

The first hint of a new round of activity in the case seemed to come earlier this month when Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle aide who later became a key lobbying associate of Abramoff, abruptly quit his law firm job.

Days later, FBI agents appeared at Doolittle's home with a warrant to search for materials related to his wife's company, which did work for a questionable charity set up by Abramoff. Julie Doolittle also earned commissions for raising campaign money for her husband.

Doolittle, who says he and his wife have done nothing wrong, has paid criminal defense lawyers more than $100,000 in the last year.

Others to fall in the wide-ranging investigation include J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 official at the Interior Department, who pleaded guilty on March 23 to lying to Senate investigators about his communications with Abramoff over tribal lobbying clients, and David Safavian, a White House aide convicted of lying to an ethics official at the General Services Administration.

Still unclear is how far the criminal investigation will reach.

And at least one parallel investigation is under way on Capitol Hill. On March 30, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a formal request for testimony from Susan Ralston, a onetime personal assistant to Abramoff who later took a job as an aide to White House political guru Karl Rove.

An aide to the panel said that e-mails and billing records from Abramoff's lobbying firm showed extensive contact with the White House and Ralston.

"We're in the process of working out arrangements for her to come in," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

———

(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Lesley Clark, Kevin Diaz and David Whitney contributed.)

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments