Of all the pending controversies in Washington, few may be as perilous for the Republican majority as the one swirling around former powerhouse lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
At issue: Did he bilk, with partner Michael Scanlon, six Indian tribes of at least $80 million, evade taxes, and violate lobbyist disclosure rules? Mr. Abramoff has been indicted on fraud charges in Florida in a case related to his $147.5 million purchase of a gambling casino. He also faces probes by two Senate panels and a federal grand jury, which may yield criminal charges.
But what gives this scandal so much scope is the number of members of Congress, federal officials, and top conservative activists it potentially involves. More than just the saga of a rogue lobbyist, it opens a window on a high-stakes, high-fee lobbyist culture that is transforming Beltway business.
"We don't know yet how big a genuine scandal it may be. But with more indictments [expected] in six to eight months, it creates a perfect storm for the Bush administration. Endemic corruption plus public unhappiness over other policies: It's a very combustible combination," says Norman Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank in Washington.
According to e-mails and congressional testimony, Mr. Abramoff used his contacts with top Republicans like former House majority leader Tom DeLay to extract huge fees from clients, especially Indian tribes involved with casino gambling. He contributed vast sums to friends in politics and charities, and served as a conduit for money to GOP candidates.
But until recent investigations, first launched by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, few knew the scale of the Abramoff operation, which could draw members of Congress and former Bush administration officials into criminal probes related to dealings with Abramoff.
"The story is alarming in its depth and breadth of potential wrongdoing," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Ariz., who chairs the Indian Affairs panel.
On Thursday, the committee will question Italia Federici, a former aide to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, on her ties to Abramoff. According to testimony and e-mails, Ms. Federici, the president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), helped Abramoff make contacts within the Interior Department on behalf of tribal clients, who later donated some $250,000 to CREA.
"There has been no evidence to suggest that Secretary Norton knew of, much less sanctioned, Mr. Abramoff or anyone else using her name in seeking fees and donations from native Americans," said Senator McCain at the Nov. 2 hearing.
Still, even the hint of an Abramoff connection is creating problems for members of Congress. Earlier this month, the Justice Department subpoenaed documents from GOP Rep. Bob Ney, whom Abramoff tapped to help an Indian tribe open a gambling casino. Mr. Ney's spokesman says that the Ohio lawmaker has not been told that he is a target of the investigation.
Earlier this year, David Safavian, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, was charged with making false statements and obstructing justice in connection with a golf trip that Abramoff organized for lawmakers, including Representatives DeLay and Ney, in 2002. Mr. Safavian has pleaded not guilty.
In response, GOP lawmakers say Abramoff overstated his clout with them in a bid to win big fees. "Abramoff is taking credit for things he did not accomplish, and suddenly everyone is taking what he has written in e-mail as gospel," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas.
On Saturday, the Dallas Morning News published e-mails between Abramoff and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who reportedly was paid at least $4 million to block casino proposals that would have competed with casinos owned by Abramoff's tribal clients.
The e-mails, dating from 2001, discuss getting Mr. Cornyn, then Texas attorney general, to block a competing casino. But by then, Senator Cornyn had already filed a lawsuit to block the casino and "didn't need any help" from Abramoff and Reed," says Mr. Stewart.
The appearance of ties to Abramoff is derailing careers. Timothy Flanigan, a senior lawyer at Tyco International, a former lobbying client of Abramoff, withdrew his nomination as deputy attorney general last month.