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Spirit of Money, Financial Fluidity
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  • $750.00 an hour?   by  munificent     15 y     2,360       3 Messages Shown       Blog: Spirit of Money, Financial Fluidity
    Tremors Across Washington as Lobbyist Turns Star Witness

    Published: January 4, 2006
    WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 - As a high-flying Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff has long been known as a mover and shaker in Washington. But when he cut a deal with federal prosecutors on Tuesday, he shook up this town as never before.

    Not long ago, Mr. Abramoff was perhaps Washington's most aggressive - and, at $750 an hour, most highly compensated - deal maker, a flamboyant man who moved fluidly through the nexus of money and power. Now his decision to cooperate in a broadening corruption and bribery investigation has thrust him into the role of a corporate insider turning against the company that claimed just to be doing business as usual.

    Even before Mr. Abramoff left the federal courthouse on Tuesday in a trench coat and fedora, nervous lawmakers of both parties, and even the White House, began trying to distance themselves from him.

    Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois announced that he would donate to charity $69,000 in campaign contributions directed to him by Mr. Abramoff.

    The plea bargain also had immediate ripple effects for a lawmaker who was once Mr. Abramoff's closest ally in the Republican leadership, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas. Mr. DeLay, indicted on a count of money laundering in a separate campaign-related case in Texas, is trying to regain his post as House majority leader, but Mr. Abramoff's plea complicates his prospects.

    Mr. Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, and prosecutors said he used campaign contributions, lavish trips, meals and other perks to influence lawmakers and their aides. Court papers filed on Tuesday singled out just one member of Congress, "Representative No. 1," identified elsewhere as Representative Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio.

    But that was cold comfort on Capitol Hill, where there was a sense of lawmakers and lobbyists' waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a city whose history is rife with scandal and the political price it exacts, from the F.B.I. sting operation known as Abscam to the savings and loans collapse involving "the Keating Five," some experts feared that the Abramoff investigation would eclipse all the rest.

    While Mr. Abramoff is most closely linked to Republicans, even Democrats, many of whom also benefited from his largesse, acted skittish.

    "We're talking about people who have longstanding careers in Congress who took contributions from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Jack Abramoff," said a Democratic Congressional aide who insisted on anonymity so as not to drag his boss into the scandal. "Now they're panicked. The hope is that this investigation will root out the wrongdoing without innocent people getting hit with the ricochet."

    Mr. Abramoff's plea bargain is scary to Washington's power brokers precisely because he was so entangled with so many of them.

    His ties to Grover G. Norquist, a leading conservative strategist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition who is now a candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, date from his college days.

    He once worked as a lobbyist alongside David H. Safavian, who was the head of the White House procurement office until just before his arrest last fall in the Abramoff investigation. And Mr. Abramoff's former personal assistant once worked for Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist.

    At the White House, administration officials have been reluctant to comment on the case, referring questions to the Justice Department and declining to defend Mr. Safavian. But on Tuesday morning, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, denounced Mr. Abramoff's actions.

    "What he is reportedly acknowledging doing is unacceptable and outrageous," Mr. McClellan said. "If laws were broken, he must be held to account and punished for what he did."

    Some Democrats saw the plea bargain as good political news. They are trying to build their 2006 midterm campaigns around what they call the Republican "culture of corruption" and say Mr. Abramoff taps into that theme.

    Minutes after his deal was announced, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which tries to help elect Democrats to Congress, trumpeted the news on its Web site. "Breaking News: Jack Abramoff to Plead Guilty," the headline said.

    Publicly, Republicans insisted that they were not worried.

    "I think there may have been some nervousness, but after reading the plea agreement today and seeing that only one person was named, there's got to be a little bit of relief out there," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

    But privately, some said they were concerned that the Justice Department might try to interpret bribery statutes more broadly than in the past. They fear a lesser standard of proof could ensnare lawmakers, lobbyists and aides, current and former.
    Political Donations

    AText of the Charges (pdf)
    "There's a lot of talk coming out of various quarters that the Justice Department is going to pursue a different definition of bribery, meaning that if somebody were to give a gift or a campaign contribution in the same time period as a member took an official action, that in and of itself would constitute bribery," said a former Republican leadership aide who insisted on anonymity. "That scares the bejesus out of people."

    A one-time Hollywood filmmaker, Mr. Abramoff began his rise in Republican power circles in the 1980's, when he was chairman of the College Republicans National Committee. His staff included Mr. Norquist and Mr. Reed.

    In 1994, when the Republicans reclaimed the House after 40 years, Mr. Abramoff rose to power with them. He used his contacts with Mr. DeLay and other prominent Republicans to build a lucrative lobbying and business enterprise that, at its peak, included a fancy restaurant, Signatures, with a special kosher kitchen. His primary clients were Indian tribes, which he has now acknowledged bilking.

    From complimentary meals at his restaurant to lavish golfing trips to Scotland, including one taken by Mr. Ney and another by Mr. DeLay, to lucrative skybox tickets at Washington sports events, Mr. Abramoff's largesse seemed to know no bounds.

    According to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks campaign contributions, he has directed more than $4.4 million since 1999 to candidates and campaign committees. The money came mostly from Mr. Abramoff's clients, but also directly from him and from a casino boat company that he once owned.

    On Tuesday, a spokesman for Mr. Hastert said the speaker would join a growing list of members of Congress who have returned or donated money given them by Mr. Abramoff.

    "The speaker believes that while these contributions were legal, it is appropriate to donate the money to charity," said the spokesman, Ron Bonjean.

    Mr. DeLay, whose former press secretary, Michael Scanlon, was Mr. Abramoff's business partner and has also been indicted in connection with the investigation, has been working furiously to resolve the Texas case before the House reconvenes on Jan. 31.

    The intent was to clear his name and forestall any call for leadership elections. But Republicans say even a legal victory in Texas could be overshadowed by Mr. Abramoff's case.

    A spokesman for Mr. DeLay said that the lawmaker had nothing to fear from Mr. Abramoff's plea and that it should not be a factor in whether he should resume his position as majority leader.

    "Mr. DeLay has been very clear that all of his actions were properly vetted and they were promptly and publicly disclosed in accordance with House ethics rules," the spokesman, Kevin Madden, said. "So there is no reason for him to be concerned."

    The investigation is prompting people inside and outside Congress to change their behavior.

    Mr. Hastert has raised the possibility of new ethics training for lawmakers.

    Paul Miller, president of the 700-member American League of Lobbyists, said lawmakers and lobbyists were "taking a step backward and assessing how they are doing business and how they are operating."

    Even as Mr. Miller acknowledged that Mr. Abramoff's case had tarnished his industry, he took pains to dispute the idea that Mr. Abramoff deserved the description "superlobbyist," so often bestowed on him in a city where money and influence speak louder than words and where when the mighty fall they fall hard.

    "Jack Abramoff," Mr. Miller said, "is nothing more than a supercrook."

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