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Spotlight turns to those who accepted money, favors
San Francisco Chronicle


January 05, 2006

WASHINGTON - The plea deal by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his agreement to cooperate with prosecutors has top lawmakers fearing they could face charges in an expanding Justice Department investigation into bribery and influence-peddling in Congress.

Legal experts predict that Rep. Bob Ney, a Republican from Ohio, could soon be indicted. Lawyers have identified him as "Representative No. 1," who, according to the complaint filed against Abramoff, accepted a golfing trip to Scotland, lavish meals and free tickets to sporting events and concerts in return for pushing legislation and carrying out other official acts that helped Abramoff's clients.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, also faces possible legal jeopardy because of his close ties to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide and Abramoff's admitted partner in crime who also has agreed to help prosecutors. The new plea deal also appears to identify DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, as an unindicted co-conspirator in one allegedly fraudulent scheme.




"They should be nervous," said Melanie Sloan, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now directs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "It won't be long before Bob Ney is indicted. It will probably take a little while longer for them to build their case against Tom DeLay."

Both lawmakers have denied involvement in any illegal schemes.

The charges expose the seamier side of an everyday practice in Washington: lobbyists, including former congressional staffers, using their connections to friends and allies on Capitol Hill to boost the interests of their clients.

But the revelations of all-expenses-paid golfing trips, expensive dinners and huge campaign donations in return for favors from lawmakers could shake the public's already strained faith in the integrity of Washington officials.

"It's going to embarrass the whole institution," said Ray Smock, a former historian of the House who is now director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"What the public can tolerate, now and then, is an individual like a Duke Cunningham," Smock said, referring to the San Diego congressman who resigned in November after admitting to taking bribes in return for steering contracts to military contractors. "But it's much more serious when you have a lot of people involved. When it becomes more systemic, people start to believe that it's endemic to the institution."

The prospect of Abramoff's cooperating - and potentially testifying against lawmakers in court - has members of Congress of both parties worried.

Abramoff, the Indian tribes that were his clients and a Florida casino business he purchased have given money to more than 200 current and former lawmakers since 1999 - $2.9 million to Republicans and $1.5 million to Democrats - including both parties' leaders. Some members of Congress already have returned at least part of the money, fearing bad publicity from the case.

Lawyers in the case believe that about 20 lawmakers and top aides are being seriously investigated for possible criminal activity.

"Lawful lobbying does not include paying a public official a personal benefit with the understanding - explicit or implicit - that a certain official act will occur," said Alice Fisher, assistant attorney general for criminal division. "That's not lobbying, that's a crime."

Another lawmaker who could be in legal jeopardy is Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, who pledged last month to return $150,000 in donations from Abramoff and his clients and associates.

Burns is under scrutiny because he reportedly met with Abramoff and his lobbying team at least eight times and received $12,000 about the same time Burns voted against a labor bill that would have harmed the garment industry in the Northern Mariana Islands - one of Abramoff's clients.

Two years earlier, Burns had no objections to similar legislation. He told the Associated Press he was swayed by a report showing that proposed bill could hurt the island's economy.

Burns and another lawmaker, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wrote a letter in 2002 supporting an Indian school construction program pushed by one of Abramoff's tribal clients. The lawmakers, who were ranking members on the Senate appropriations committee that controls spending on Indian affairs, also helped secure the funds for the project.

Both lawmakers insist it was a legitimate project, although Dorgan has since returned $67,000 in contributions from Abramoff and his clients.

Ney faces the most serious legal predicament, and the Washington Post reported that he has been told he might be a target of the investigation.

The plea agreement Tuesday lays out in detail gifts that Ney and members of his staff accepted, including all-expenses-paid trips to the Northern Marianas in 2000 and to the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2001 as well as frequent use of Abramoff's luxury box at the MCI Center for concerts and sporting events.

In return, the prosecutors said the congressman had used his position as chairman of the House Administration Committee to help an Abramoff client win a lucrative government contract to provide wireless equipment to Congress. According to the complaint, Ney also agreed to introduce legislation to lift a ban on casino gaming sought by one of Abramoff's tribal clients.

Ney, in a statement released by his spokesman Tuesday, denied the donations or gifts influenced his actions.

Both parties will be watching closely to see whether DeLay is pulled into the investigation. DeLay, his wife and two aides went on a golfing trip to Scotland in May 2000 arranged by Abramoff and paid for by the Tigua Indian tribe, which was seeking Congress' help in reopening a Texas casino. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing, saying he had not known the tribe paid for the trip.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said he was pushing the Justice Department to pursue a broader inquiry into what role DeLay and other lawmakers played in blocking labor reforms opposed by Abramoff's clients in the Northern Marianas. Miller alleges that DeLay's office may have steered federal appropriations to local lawmakers who supported Abramoff and his allies in the islands' Legislature.

"There is a serious amount of first-hand evidence on the public record of very unethical behavior by people in his office," Miller said. "Whether or not that leads to him, that's what needs to be determined by the investigation."


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