Corruption Inquiry Threatens to Ensnare Lawmakers
By PHILIP SHENON
Published: November 20, 2005
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."
Mr. Abramoff's lobbying work was not limited to the casinos, though.
Newly disclosed documents from his files show that he asked for $9
million in 2003 from the president of Gabon, in West Africa, to set
up a White House meeting with President Bush; there was an Oval
Office meeting last year, although there is no evidence in the public
record to show that Mr. Abramoff had a role in the arrangements.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, an ethics watchdog group that has
called for tighter lobbying rules, said it was too early to say
whether the Abramoff investigation would produce anything like the
convulsion in Congress during the Abscam investigations of the
1980's, when one senator and five House members were convicted on
bribery and other charges after an F.B.I. sting involving a phony
"But this clearly has the potential," Mr. Wertheimer said.
So far, one member of Congress, Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio
Republican who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, has
acknowledged receiving a subpoena from the grand jury investigating
Mr. Abramoff. Another, Representative John T. Doolittle, Republican
of California, has acknowledged that his wife, who helped Mr.
Abramoff organize fund-raisers, was subpoenaed.
The Justice Department signaled last month that Mr. DeLay had come
under scrutiny in the investigation, over a trip that Mr. Abramoff
arranged for Mr. DeLay and his wife to Britain in 2000 that included
rounds of golf at the fabled course at St. Andrews in Scotland.
The department revealed its interest in Mr. DeLay, who is under
indictment in Texas in an unrelated investigation involving
violations of state election laws, in an extraordinary request to the
British government that police there interview former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher about the circumstances of a meeting in London with
Mr. DeLay during the trip five years ago.
London newspapers quoted a document prepared by the British Home
Office that outlined the Justice Department's investigation and said
that "it is alleged that Abramoff arranged for his clients to pay for
the trips to the U.K. on the basis that Congressman DeLay would
support favorable legislation."
Richard Cullen, a lawyer for Mr. DeLay, said in an interview Friday
that he was "glad that the Justice Department is looking into all
aspects of the trip because I think that a thorough investigation
will show that the trip was substantive and transparent."
Mr. Cullen said that shortly after he was hired several months ago,
he contacted the Justice Department "to let them know that Mr. DeLay
is available to cooperate in any way."
The lawyer said he was "convinced that when the Justice Department
completes its investigation of Abramoff and Scanlon, that it will be
clear Tom DeLay has acted ethically and has conducted himself
consistent with all laws and House standards of conduct." He said he
had not heard from federal prosecutors since the initial contacts.
The situation could be more serious for Mr. Ney, a five-term lawmaker
whose position as chairman of the House Administration Committee
gives him power over the operations of the Capitol building and
allows him to divide up Congressional perks like office space and
Mr. Ney's ties to Mr. Abramoff have been revealed slowly over the
last year, largely through testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee, which has held a series of hearings into accusations that
Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon defrauded their Indian tribe clients.
Mr. Ney was not identified by name in the documents filed against Mr.
Scanlon on Friday. But the Ohio lawmaker's lawyers acknowledged that
Mr. Ney was the lawmaker identified as "Representative #1" in the
Justice Department papers, which charged Mr. Scanlon with conspiring
to provide "Representative #1" with a golfing trip to Scotland, meals
at Mr. Abramoff's Washington restaurant and campaign contributions.
Mr. Ney took part in a golf trip to Scotland in 2002 with Mr.
Abramoff, where they played at St. Andrews, as Mr. DeLay had done two
years earlier. Documents and testimony to Congress showed that Mr.
Abramoff had asked an Indian tribe in Texas to sponsor the trip and
that Mr. Ney was then asked for his help in trying to reopen a casino
owned by the tribe that had been shuttered by state officials.
Mr. Ney was also a regular at Signatures, the expensive Washington
restaurant that Mr. Abramoff owned and used to entertain clients,
colleagues and lawmakers. Former Signatures employees have said that
Mr. Ney frequently ate and drank at the restaurant without paying.
Mr. Ney has acknowledged the gifts but said they were within limits
set by Congressional ethics rules.