News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A wide net cast in lobby inquiry -

Probe of Abramoff touches on dozens of lawmakers who aided his clients
By Robert Little
Sun reporter
Originally published December 4, 2005

What began last year as a seemingly routine inquiry into an allegedly crooked lobbyist has evolved into a far-reaching investigation with all the intrigue and political octane of a full-blown Washington scandal - one that could well recast the relationship between money and influence on Capitol Hill, according to political analysts and scholars.

The three-pronged investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and more than $80 million in payments he and associates took from Indian tribes has already tarnished two members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Dozens of others are under scrutiny for promoting the causes of Abramoff's clients while accepting suspiciously timed political contributions linked to the once-mighty lobbyist.

Still more lawmakers have begun returning Abramoff-related contributions or donating them to charity - a practice that could become its own financial torrent if it catches on, given that Abramoff and his associates and clients contributed money to perhaps a third of Washington's 535 members of Congress in the past four years. The lobbyist's reach is already evident in Maryland. Edward B. Miller, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has been cooperating with a federal grand jury exploring the role that a company he founded and later sold might have played in collecting millions of dollars from Abramoff clients and diverting it to other interests.

But Washington insiders say the most consequential outcome of the Abramoff affair could be on the horizon, if the investigation continues to suggest that cozy, often questionable relationships between money and lawmaking have become the standard in Washington, rather than the exception. Many expect efforts to tighten federal lobbying regulations to soon gain the steam they often lacked the past few years, perhaps by further restricting gifts and travel reimbursements or by imposing tougher disclosure and reporting requirements.

Near 'tipping point'
"The scale and cynicism of the operation puts it in a category of its own," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who said he believes that the fallout from the Abramoff scandal will rewrite Washington's rules governing the financial dealings and disclosure for lobbyists.
"At some point you hit a sort of tipping point, where the scandal becomes so broad, with so many people involved, that it can no longer be tagged as an aberration and can no longer be disregarded," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "I think we are very near that point now."

The ultimate scope of the investigations that Abramoff's dealings have spawned is uncertain, with some observers suspecting that the scandal is contained to a small group of lawmakers and lobbyists and the relatively obscure realm of Indian gaming, while others see much broader implications. The Justice Department is reportedly employing more than three dozen people to investigate members of Congress and their aides who have done business with Abramoff, and two investigations by congressional committees are under way.

Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, is under scrutiny for apparently supporting Abramoff's purchase of a Florida gambling-boat company in 2000, a transaction that led to the lobbyist's indictment in August on charges of wire fraud and conspiring to defraud lenders. DeLay accepted overseas trips financed by Abramoff clients, and evidence from the Senate investigations suggests he pressured the lobbyist to raise money for him.

Combined with unrelated corruption cases, such as Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation after pleading guilty to bribery and tax evasion charges, the scandal has created an environment for reform, Noble said. "If you assume this is all going on, that people are buying influence with gifts and trips and even bribes, then what we're talking about is something that really undermines the very fabric of representative democracy," he said. "It's unfortunate, because not all lawmakers are like that, not all lobbyists are like that. But what is the public going to believe?"

Allegations expand
From the early days of the Bush administration, Abramoff, a Republican, developed a reputation for his prowess and connections lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes with gambling operations. Sen. John McCain, who as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is leading one of the investigations into Abramoff's dealings, called him a "vainglorious and once-powerful rainmaker" during one of the committee's recent hearings.
In early 2004, The Washington Post revealed that Abramoff and an associate, public relations specialist and former DeLay staffer Michael Scanlon, had collected more than $45 million in payments from Indian tribe clients despite a lull in Indian-related issues being debated in Congress.

The allegations against Abramoff have since expanded to include claims of steering donations to favored lawmakers or to his own nonprofit enterprises. Also under review is Abramoff's role in the K Street Project begun by GOP leaders to persuade Washington lobbying firms to hire Republicans - some say to offset a lingering Clinton-era imbalance, others say to monopolize Washington's political infrastructure. A friend and longtime associate of Republican activist Grover G. Norquist, the project's most outspoken proponent, Abramoff is being investigated for reportedly arranging private-sector employment in his lobbying firm for government workers who helped his clients.

Mann, in an e-mail exchange with The Sun, said he thinks that allegation could "eventually undermine the K Street Project, and lead to new rules governing lobbyist/lawmaker relations and much more caution by private interests in responding to the financial demands of politicians."

Scanlon pleaded guilty last month in U.S. District Court in Washington to conspiring to defraud four Indian tribes, and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

"We have uncovered almost unbelievable things here," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, the top Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee, as he opened a fifth congressional hearing into the matter late last month. "We have uncovered activities that are pretty disgusting, some perhaps criminal, many unethical. "

Yet lobbyists and other Washington officials say the complexities of trying to root out corruption or undue political influence with legislation is evident in Dorgan himself, who received nearly $95,000 in contributions from Abramoff or his clients over four years and held a political fundraiser in an MCI Center skybox leased by Abramoff. Dorgan released a statement Thursday saying he has never met Abramoff and didn't know the lobbyist was behind the fundraiser. The statement also noted that his support of Indian tribes predates their association with Abramoff.

While some of Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers appear inappropriate, officials say, the tribes he represents are so wealthy and their political contributions so widespread that much of their political giving seems fairly routine. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Southern Maryland, received $17,000 the past four years from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff, through his congressional campaign and a political action committee he manages. Also, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, received $5,000 from four tribes for her campaign account between 2002 and 2004. Spokeswomen for both said their bosses had not intervened on behalf of the tribes.

"Like it or not, lobbyists are critical to the functioning of this government," said Kenneth A. Gross, a Washington attorney for the law firm Skadden, Arps and co-author of a book called The Ethics Handbook for Entertaining and Lobbying Public Officials. "Legislation has gotten so complicated, and the plates of these members and staffers are so full, that there's no way any of them are equipped to look into all the matters they need to address."

"We're talking about a few rotten apples that are not necessarily spoiling the barrel," said Gross. "It starts to become politically popular to cast the situation as some sort of 'culture of corruption,' but that's not what's really happening here."

Buffalo News - Sen. Harkin included in probe of Abramoff


WASHINGTON - As Sen. Tom Harkin drafted letters to the Bush administration on behalf of an Iowa tribe, he had no shortage of ideas for wording: A tribal lobbyist who donated to the Democrat's campaign suggested language for him to use.
Harkin wrote at least three letters in 2003 pressing the government to release federal money to help the Sac & Fox tribe in his state cope with the temporary closing of its casino due to a tribal dispute, according to Interior Department documents obtained by the Associated Press and records provided by Harkin's office.

In doing so, Harkin accepted input from Sac & Fox lobbyist Michael D. Smith, a member of Jack Abramoff's tribal lobbying team at the Greenberg Traurig law firm. Smith met with the senator and also offered suggestions for the letters, Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson said.

"Absolutely, he did contribute to those letters," Dobson said, adding that she wasn't sure what Smith's suggestions were. Harkin also met with lobbyists on the other side of the dispute, she said.

Harkin is among dozens of members of Congress who wrote letters that benefited tribal clients of Abramoff's lobbying team while collecting political contributions from Abramoff, his clients or his lobbying associates.

The Justice Department is examining the proximity of donations to congressional action as part of its investigation of Abramoff's activities. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, while investigating allegations that Abramoff cheated the tribes out of tens of millions of dollars, has steered clear of examining specific members of Congress.

The letters to the Interior Department and National Indian Gaming Commission between June and November 2003 came as Harkin's campaign and political action committee harvested donations from Smith and Greenberg Traurig tribal clients.

Harkin twice used Abramoff's skybox for fund-raisers - once in 2002 and again in 2003 - without reimbursing. He also collected $17,000 from Smith and other Abramoff-related sources in 2003. The Sac & Fox gave $4,000 more to Harkin in 2004, about six months after the federal government allowed the tribe's casino to reopen.

Dobson said a recent audit found Harkin should have reimbursed for the skybox, and he did so this fall. As for the timing of the fund-raising help and letters, "I'm telling you there is no nexus," she said.

Harkin "wrote these letters and worked on this issue because over 1,300 Meskwaki people and Iowans were out of work," Dobson said. "This was a very dire situation for the community."

She said neither the senator nor his staff knows Abramoff or ever has met with the lobbyist.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined to comment on the Harkin letters. Abramoff routinely billed at least one of his clients, the Northern Mariana Islands, for time he spent drafting letters for members of Congress, invoices the islands' government provided the AP under an open records request. McCain Says Abramoff Probe Will Lead to More Indictments

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senator John McCain said he expects ``lots'' of indictments to grow out of the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and that there was ``strong evidence'' of wrongdoing by some lawmakers.

``This town has become very corrupt, there's no doubt about it,'' McCain said today on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' program.

The Arizona Republican is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has led a congressional probe of Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes who hired him as a lobbyist. The Justice Department is investigating Abramoff's contacts with lawmakers and congressional staff members.

``There's strong evidence that there was significant wrongdoing,'' McCain said when asked whether he believed some lawmakers have committed crimes. He declined to be specific.

Michael Scanlon, a former Abramoff associate who previously was an aide to Republican Representative Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to corrupt public officials and defraud Indian-tribe clients. The plea clears the way for his cooperation with the investigation.

Abramoff, Scanlon and their lobbying clients combined to give campaign money to a third of the members of Congress.

``The system here, where so much is done in the way of policy and money in appropriations bills where line items are put in in secret which nobody knows about or sees until after they're voted on, is the problem,'' McCain said.

Representative Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican who took an Abramoff-sponsored trip to Scotland in 2002, said last month that prosecutors have subpoenaed records from his office. He has denied any wrongdoing and said he was deceived by Abramoff and Scanlon.

McCain, 69, said the lobbying system needs to be restructured to eliminate fraud and to prevent groups from hiring well-connected people to make deals to pass certain legislation or guarantee funding for key issues. He said he wouldn't count on the congressional ethics committee that monitor lawmakers' compliance with laws and ethics regulations.

``I don't think the ethics committees are working very well,'' McCain said.


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