'Corruption ... very extensive'


USA TODAY
Date: 01-04-06

By Kevin Johnson and Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

Wed Jan 4, 7:10 AM ET

A little more than a year ago, Jack Abramoff was enjoying many of the benefits access to official Washington can provide.

There were multimillion-dollar lobbying fees to collect, Super Bowl tickets to distribute and lavish trips and dinners to host.

What set Abramoff apart from legitimate Washington power brokers, federal prosecutors say, was his willingness to exploit an extensive network of Capitol Hill contacts - from well-positioned congressional staffers to members of the Republican leadership - regardless of the rules.

"The corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said. "Government officials and governmental action are not for sale."

Abramoff's campaign of corruption officially ended Tuesday when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. In addition to about 10 years in prison, he may be forced to repay more than $25 million, according to court documents.

Prosecutors say Abramoff's cooperation is central to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that stretches from Capitol Hill to congressional districts across the USA.

At least a dozen FBI field offices have been drawn into the inquiry, FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said. Authorities have declined to disclose the number of possible targets in the ongoing inquiry, but it goes beyond one member of Congress or his office. "No criminal resources of the FBI will be spared in support of this important mission," Swecker said.

The plea agreement outlined a scheme by which Abramoff and his secret partner, public relations operative Michael Scanlon, billed Indian tribes for exorbitant fees, then split the profits. Abramoff hid some of the money from the IRS by directing it to a non-profit group he established, the Capital Athletic Foundation.

Abramoff's share of the kickbacks from fees paid by four Indian tribes in Louisiana, Texas, Michigan and Mississippi came to more than $20 million, prosecutors said.

Abramoff and Scanlon also provided "a stream of things of value" to public officials to get their help. The stream included "foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support ... employment for relatives of officials and campaign contributions," court documents say.

Among the recipients were a House member identified by the lawmaker's attorney as Rep. Bob Ney (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio, and members of Ney's staff. They got trips to the Northern Marianas Islands in 2000, to the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2001, and to Scotland's storied St. Andrews golf course in 2002, according to the documents. Ney also held fundraising events at Abramoff's now-defunct Washington restaurant, Signatures.

In return, Ney and his aides put statements in the Congressional Record supportive of Abramoff's interests and helped an Abramoff client get a wireless telephone contract with the House of Representatives, the government charged. In a statement, Ney denied that he was influenced by Abramoff.

Abramoff also funneled $50,000 to the wife of an unnamed congressional aide in 2000 and 2001, in return for the aide's help in blocking legislation for a client.

Abramoff's guilty plea follows weeks of other scandal news involving government officials.

Republican Tom DeLay stepped down from his position as House majority leader last year after he was indicted on money-laundering charges in a separate case in his home state of Texas. DeLay has close ties to Abramoff, who employed some of the Texan's former aides and paid for a separate golf trip to Scotland for DeLay. Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned from the House in November after pleading guilty to taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

The developments appear to be damaging Americans' perception of their elected representatives.

A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Dec. 16-18 found that 49% of American adults say they believe "most members of Congress are corrupt." That's 1 percentage point below the level of 1994, when voters turned control of Congress over to Republicans. The GOP appears to be tarred by scandal slightly more than the Democrats; 47% said "almost all" or "many" Republicans are corrupt, compared with 44% for Democrats.

Among registered voters, 55% said the issue of corruption will be the "most important" or a "very important" factor in their decision on whom to vote for next year. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3 to 5 percentage points, depending on the question.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Abramoff's confessed conduct "outrageous."

"He needs to be held to account, and he needs to be punished," McClellan said. Abramoff was among President Bush's Pioneers, who raised at least $100,000 for his re-election in 2004.



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