By MARGARET TALEV
December 07, 2005
Lobbyists. Indian tribes. Casinos. Religious conservatives. Anti-tax crusaders. Tens of millions of dollars. Dubiously timed legislative actions. Speculation about widespread political corruption. Suspect charities and incriminating e-mails. Tentacles to the White House and the campaign coffers of more than 100 former and current members of Congress. Cameos in the Pacific, West Africa, Scotland and Israel. The mob and a gangland murder in South Florida. A congressional investigation led by a senator with an eye on the presidency. And teams of federal prosecutors going after the goods.
This is no best-selling novel or movie blockbuster - not yet. It is a real-life intrigue known as the Jack Abramoff affair, for the once-powerful lobbyist at its apparent center, and it hangs menacingly over the Republicans who run Washington and, to a smaller degree, some Democrats.
For two years, multiple investigations into Abramoff's activities have unfolded as sideshows, overshadowed by probes into the leak of a CIA agent's identity and former House Republican leader Tom DeLay's fund-raising tactics.
That's changing. Indictments began in late summer, although no elected official has been charged. One Abramoff associate's guilty plea came down last month, and it implicates others. Now, lawmakers who held posts on committees concerning Abramoff clients, who took gifts or travel or big donations from him and his associates, or who have spouses or former staffers who worked with the lobbyist, are nervously awaiting what comes next.
"What the prosecutors are doing is trying to encourage folks to start talking about whether there was any quid pro quo," said Tony Raymond, a former Federal Election Commission analyst and co-founder of the campaign-finance research service PoliticalMoneyLine, who is closely watching the case. "It has a huge potential. You can see on the public record the number of people that received Indian money, who had ties to Abramoff. If there's any more behind that, it could be a tremendous story."
Justice Department officials won't say which lawmakers they're looking into - or looking to for help. Public records and recent news reports by the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press document some of the closest, or most interesting, ties, to DeLay, of Texas; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.; Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
Through a spokesman, Abramoff and his legal team declined to address individual allegations or comment for this story.
The saga begins in earnest in 2000, the year George W. Bush was elected president. Abramoff, then 42, was a conservative Jewish Republican activist, a one-time Hollywood producer turned Washington lobbyist who raised big money for Bush and the party.
Abramoff aggressively worked his contacts in the new administration and in Congress on behalf of clients. That included issues in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory where sweatshops thrived and where Abramoff helped convince Congress, with DeLay's help, to block minimum-wage laws. It included corporate clients.
It also included multiple efforts on behalf of Indian tribes Abramoff represented, to block casinos by competitors and exempt his clients from various regulations and taxes. Critics have accused Abramoff and associates of bilking client tribes, including the Coushattas in Louisiana and Choctaws in Mississippi, in part by coordinating secret campaigns against them so they would need more of his representation, and in part by overcharging them to pay for unrelated pet projects or political gifts.
Separately in 2000, Abramoff and a business partner, Adam Kidan, bought SunCruz Casino, a cruise-ship gambling venture, from its owner, Gus Boulis. Before the sale, Ney, the Ohio congressman who became a beneficiary of multiple Abramoff campaign contributions, gifts and travel, put comments critical of Boulis into the congressional record. After the sale, Ney publicly praised Kidan. Subsequent Ney actions benefiting Abramoff, detailed by The Washington Post, include legislation to reopen a tribal casino and to help an Israeli business client get a government contract. Ney has since said he was misled by Abramoff and maintained he has done nothing illegal or improper. Through a spokesman, Ney declined to be interviewed.
In early 2001, Boulis was killed in what authorities described as a gang-style shooting, coming from another car that had driven up beside his. This fall, three men with reported Mafia ties were arrested and charged in the case. Court papers and reports by South Florida news organizations indicate SunCruz had previously paid money to companies connected to those men, for food and security services.
Neither Kidan nor Abramoff is charged in connection with Boulis' death. But earlier this year, the men were indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges for their $147.5 million purchase of SunCruz, which has since gone bankrupt. Officials say the two faked their own investment in the company to get other investors to finalize the deal. Kidan and Abramoff have pleaded not guilty. A trial could begin next month.
In 2003, The New York Times would first report, Abramoff sought a $9 million fee from the president of the African nation of Gabon to use his connections to get a meeting with President Bush. Less than a year later, Bush did meet with Omar Bongo, but the administration says it wasn't because of Abramoff, and there is no record of Gabon taking the lobbyist up on his pitch.
Also by 2003, some Indian tribal members were becoming concerned over how much they were paying Abramoff. News organizations began reporting on the money, and Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., launched an investigation.
E-mails released this year as part of McCain's probe show correspondence between Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a public-relations executive and business partner and former aide to DeLay, belittling tribes and concentrating on making as much money as possible. Other e-mails show Abramoff included two friends, Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, and Grover Norquist, a conservative lobbyist and anti-tax advocate, in his strategies involving tribal clients. Their roles are under scrutiny. More e-mails suggest creative billing practices by Abramoff and some concerns from associates over record keeping and justifications.
Abramoff was pursuing myriad pet causes on the side, founding a Jewish school in Washington, since shuttered, and supporting a friend's sniper training in Israel. Both relied on his money and have come under scrutiny. So has the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity through which much of Abramoff's clients' money may have passed before being spent on projects that had nothing to do with youth sports. So have other groups and companies where money from Abramoff clients went.
Records indicate Abramoff arranged travel for various lawmakers and government officials, in some cases paid indirectly through charitable or policy groups in which the lobbyist played a leadership role, or that received funding from his lobbying clients.
There were golfing trips to Scotland by DeLay, Ney and David Safavian, a General Services Administration employee who later became the top procurement official for the White House, at a time clients of Abramoff had an interest in the agency.
Safavian in October was charged with making false statements and obstructing an investigation into that travel and Abramoff's dealings with the agency.
Last month, Scanlon, the public-relations executive with whom Abramoff orchestrated some of his strategies, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff to bribe a congressman - revealed as Ney - and other unnamed public officials, and to cheat Indian tribes. Facing prison time and millions in fines, Scanlon is believed to be cooperating with federal prosecutors who may be looking to build a case against politicians and government officials as well as Abramoff. Scanlon's lawyer did not return calls for comment.
Ney has been subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating Abramoff, the congressman disclosed last month. His spokesman said Ney has not been told he is a target and that he will "fully cooperate in any investigation in this matter."
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