11/20/2005

Corruption Inquiry Threatens to Ensnare Lawmakers - New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 - The Justice Department has signaled for the first time in recent weeks that prominent members of Congress could be swept up in the corruption investigation of Jack Abramoff, the former Republican superlobbyist who diverted some of his tens of millions of dollars in fees to provide lavish travel, meals and campaign contributions to the lawmakers whose help he needed most.

The investigation by a federal grand jury, which began more than a year ago, has created alarm on Capitol Hill, especially with the announcement Friday of criminal charges against Michael Scanlon, Mr. Abramoff's former lobbying partner and a former top House aide to Representative Tom DeLay.

The charges against Mr. Scanlon identified no lawmakers by name, but a summary of the case released by the Justice Department accused him of being part of a broad conspiracy to provide "things of value, including money, meals, trips and entertainment to federal public officials in return for agreements to perform official acts" - an attempt at bribery, in other words, or something close to it.

Mr. Abramoff, who is under indictment in a separate bank-fraud case in Florida, has not been charged by the federal grand jury here. But Mr. Scanlon's lawyer says he has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation, suggesting that Mr. Abramoff's day in court in Washington is only a matter of time.

Scholars who specialize in the history and operations of Congress say that given the brazenness of Mr. Abramoff's lobbying efforts, as measured by the huge fees he charged clients and the extravagant gifts he showered on friends on Capitol Hill, almost all of them Republicans, the investigation could end up costing several lawmakers their careers, if not their freedom.

The investigation threatens to ensnarl many outside Congress as well, including Interior Department officials and others in the Bush administration who were courted by Mr. Abramoff on behalf of the Indian tribe casinos that were his most lucrative clients.

The inquiry has already reached into the White House; a White House budget official, David H. Safavian, resigned only days before his arrest in September on charges of lying to investigators about his business ties to Mr. Abramoff, a former lobbying partner.

"I think this has the potential to be the biggest scandal in Congress in over a century," said Thomas E. Mann, a Congressional specialist at the Brookings Institution. "I've been around Washington for 35 years, watching Congress, and I've never seen anything approaching Abramoff for cynicism and chutzpah in proposing quid pro quos to members of Congress."

Even by the gold-plated standards of Washington lobbying firms, the fees paid to Mr. Abramoff were extraordinary. A former president of the College Republicans who turned to lobbying after a short-lived career as a B-movie producer, Mr. Abramoff, with his lobbying team, collected more than $80 million from the Indian tribes and their gambling operations; he was known by lobbying rivals as "Casino Jack."

Corruption Inquiry Threatens to Ensnare Lawmakers - New York Times

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