How far will Abramoff scandal reach?
A number of lawmakers are under investigation for their connections with Jack Abramoff.
What worries Washington most about the corruption scandal with ex-superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at the epicenter is how far it will reach.Skip to next paragraph
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Even those who never watched the Redskins play from his skybox, dined gratis at his Signatures restaurant, or teed off at St. Andrews in Scotland on his credit card are scrambling for cover.
While only one lawmaker was explicitly described in Mr. Abramoff's plea agreement - Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio - hundreds more accepted funds from Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, or his tribal clients. And that's the rub.
It's not a crime to accept contributions from lobbyists. It's a bribe only if there's evidence of an agreement to perform an official act in exchange. But the political damage can go further.
"Careers usually end when the indictment is brought, whether [the accused] are cleared or not. Very few survive an election, once an indictment has been brought," says Stanley Brand, a Washington defense attorney who advised House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the 1978 ABSCAM bribery case, an FBI sting operation that convicted five House members and a senator.
Many on Capitol Hill say the Abramoff affair could eclipse ABSCAM. With Abramoff's help, federal prosecutors say, they are unraveling an "extensive" corruption scheme. While prosecutors have not disclosed the number of lawmakers under investigation, speculation runs from a half-dozen to as many as 60. At least a dozen FBI field offices are now involved in the investigation.
"Government action is not for sale," said Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division at a news conference announcing the plea agreement this week. Prosecutors will follow the evidence "no matter where that trail leads," she added.
Several lawmakers are already under fire in their home districts for ties to Abramoff. Mr. Ney, the first lawmaker to disclose that he is under investigation by the Justice Department, had submitted two statements into the Congressional Record bearing on a casino deal in Florida involving Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon.
In return for this and other official acts, Mr. Ney and members of his staff got trips, including to Scotland for golf and Tampa, Fla., for the Super Bowl, tickets to sporting events, regular meals at Abramoff's upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions, according to information included in the plea agreement.
Ney, who chairs the House Administration Committee, says he regrets his association with Abramoff and had been duped.
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, indicted on Oct. 3 on unrelated charges of conspiracy and money laundering in Texas, and former staff, including Mr. Scanlon, are also in the mix of trips, contributions, and favors to Abramoff clients. Mr. DeLay accompanied Ney on a golf trip to Scotland financed by Abramoff.
After the Abramoff plea bargain, Speaker Dennis Hastert added his name to a growing list of lawmakers returning contributions from Abramoff and his clients.
In Montana, GOP Sen. Conrad Burns has already returned some $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff, but Democrats are using the Abramoff connection in ads to drive down his approval ratings. "Burns has mounted a pretty strong defense of himself, but according to a poll released last week, voters don't seem to be buying it," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.
"These are charges of corruption and bribery at the highest levels of government, and Montanans take it very seriously. What they want most is a senator focused on creating jobs in the state, fixing the healthcare crisis, and not worrying about whether he's going to jail over his friendship with Jack Abramoff," says Matt McKenna, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party.
Democrats say the Abramoff connection could play in at least three Senate races this year. "The Abramoff plea agreement is sending shudders through Republican congressional offices. It's one chapter in a larger story of how the Republicans have abused their majority status over the last decade," says Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But even Democrats risk being swept into the Abramoff morass. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota helped lead the investigation against Abramoff and Scanlon in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but also helped Abramoff's tribal clients. He has returned all contributions from these donors to avoid the appearance of ethical conflict.
"It's not enough to say that Congressman X got this contribution and then voted this way. You need to show a specific link or agreement," says Randall Eliason, a law professor at American University.