Republican Crime Family?
"Corruption Inquiry Threatens to Ensnare Lawmakers
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 Arab sheik.
"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 parking.
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."