WASHINGTON – A former aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was sentenced Monday for his role in the circle of corruption that surrounded disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle on Monday sentenced Mark Zachares to four years of probation and 200 hours of community service. He must also serve 12 weekends in jail and pay a $4,000 fine. Zachares has already surrendered his law license.
Zachares, a former University of Alaska Anchorage basketball player who served as special counsel to Young, R-Alaska, pleaded guilty in 2007 to accepting gifts from Abramoff and his cronies in return for providing inside information. His sentencing was delayed while he worked with federal authorities, but on Monday a prosecutor told the judge there was nothing left for Zachares to cooperate with.
Although court documents show that Zachares provided substantial help to the FBI in criminal investigations of two congressmen -- including one in which he secretly recorded a conversation at the request of agents -- the information he provided did not lead to any convictions.
That, the judge acknowledged, was no fault of Zachares, and due mostly to a change in anti-corruption laws. The U.S. Supreme Court this summer scaled back the honest services statute used by federal prosecutors to bring to justice crooked politicians and executives, including not just the Abramoff case but some cases connected to the Alaska public corruption probe.
Zachares was a former top official of the Northern Mariana Islands government, a U.S. possession in the Pacific, when Abramoff was lobbying on its behalf. When Zachares returned to the mainland, Abramoff tried to place him in a job where he could help the lobbyist and his clients.
Zachares first worked as counsel on a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee where Young was chairman, then as special counsel to Young himself. In a memo to fellow lobbyists, Abramoff said Zachares was "pulling our load inside."
In return for providing information, "Team Abramoff" rewarded him with more than $30,000 in tickets to sporting events, a luxury golf trip to Scotland and $10,000 in cash.
With his mother and wife looking on in the courtroom and his lawyer Edward MacMahon by his side, a tearful Zachares told the judge that he embraced the worst of the capital's culture when he moved to Washington. That included alcohol abuse, other substance abuse, and paying little attention to his wife and daughters.
He said had no one to blame for himself for being swayed by Abramoff's influence, adding that his moral compass was "non-existent." Not a day has gone by that he doesn't anguish over his decision, Zachares said.
"The person who stands before you today is not that same person," he told the judge.
His lawyer said that Zachares didn't have the means to continue to fight the case, including possibly seeking its dismissal in light of the recent decisions in the honest services cases. He is not upset that he was sentenced even as other more powerful people were not charged in the case, or their cases fell apart in the wake of the Skilling decision.
"Mark genuinely has come to grips with taking responsibility for what he did himself," MacMahon said.
Young himself was under investigation by the FBI for several years, but said recently that the probe is over. While one focus of the investigation was on gifts and excessive campaign contributions in Alaska by the defunct oil field service company Veco, other issues had arisen as well, including allegations he inserted money for a Florida interchange in a highway bill after receiving campaign contributions from a developer.
Young reported spending more than $1 million defending against the allegations, but he has repeatedly refused to discuss any details of the inquiry.
Including Abramoff, the Justice Department has secured 20 convictions in the investigation, including 11 congressional aides and officials from the Bush administration.
Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, served prison time for taking bribes from Abramoff. Lobbyist Kevin Ring, a former aide to retired Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., was convicted by a jury last week of bribing officials with free meals and tickets. Another Young aide, Fraser Verrusio, is set to go to trial in January on charges he took an all-expenses-paid trip to a 2003 World Series game from lobbyists at Abramoff's firm.