Lawmakers fear lobbyist's testimony in corruption probe

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Abramoff has not been charged in the corruption investigation.

WASHINGTON -- Not since the 1992 House banking scandal that led to the retirement or ouster of 77 lawmakers has a corruption probe like the one involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff struck fear in so many hearts on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers -- Republican Sen. Sam Brownback became the latest -- are scrambling to return or give away campaign donations, while others are the target of ethics complaints back in their home states by their political foes.

The turmoil over Abramoff is taking place as his attorneys and the Justice Department, which is investigating possible congressional bribery, try to negotiate a deal for the ex-lobbyist to tell everything he knows.

And he knows a lot.

Even without Abramoff's cooperation, the Justice Department is focusing on as many as 20 lawmakers and aides, a person familiar with the investigation said.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said Abramoff could decide suddenly to take a deal and a plea could happen quickly, before the end of the year. The expectation, the person said, was that it wouldn't happen until the New Year.

Abramoff has not been charged in the corruption investigation.

In a five-year span ending in early 2004, Indian tribes represented by the lobbyist rolled millions of dollars in casino income into congressional campaigns, frequently by routing the money through political action committees for conservative members of Congress who opposed gambling.

Also part of the Abramoff treatment were trips, skybox fundraisers, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment and jobs for lawmakers' relatives and aides.

On Wednesday, a lawyer close to the Abramoff plea negotiations said, "The desire is that a deal be done before the year is out. It ain't done yet." The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were at a sensitive stage.

This week, President Bush said it seemed to him that Abramoff "was an equal money dispenser, that he was giving money to people in both political parties."

Historically, tribal money had been going to Democrats almost exclusively. Abramoff changed that.

The lobbyist ordered one tribal client to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations. A list, obtained by The Associated Press, earmarked $90,000 of the money for the Republican Party, none for Democrats.

Of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Abramoff directed the tribe to donate to congressional campaigns, the Republican-Democrat breakdown was 11-to-1.

The Abramoff case is the flip side to the House banking scandal of 14 years ago which hurt mostly Democrats, who long had been in control of Congress. Republicans have held majorities in both Houses for most of the past 11 years.

In the scandal of 1992, 269 members casually and repeatedly bounced checks on the House bank -- one congressman had 127 overdrafts -- at a time when the rest of the country was suffering through high unemployment and a stagnant economy. Ultimately, four ex-congressmen and the former House sergeant-at-arms were convicted of wrongdoing.

'Young Turks'

Exploiting the House banking scandal, Rep. Newt Gingrich and freshmen Republicans dubbed "The Young Turks" encouraged a full investigation, with most of the fallout hitting Democrats.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans' strategy from the early 1990s will work in reverse for Democrats in the Abramoff case.

A former aide to ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, already has pleaded guilty in the probe. Court papers in the plea by former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon say Scanlon and Abramoff "provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts."

The court papers referred repeatedly to one of the officials as Representative No. 1, acknowledged by his attorney to be Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. Both Ney and his attorney deny wrongdoing.

Among those returning the most money is Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., for an estimated $150,000.

Brownback's now-defunct Restore America Political Action Committee received $42,000 from four Indian tribes represented by Abramoff in 2002, according to Federal Election Commission records, and now he is giving it away.

Brownback, who is weighing a presidential bid, always has preferred to either return or donate to charity any campaign or leadership funds that have even the appearance of impropriety, said a spokesman.

In Montana, the state Republican party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that Democratic Sen. Max Baucus violated federal campaign finance laws by failing to properly report the use Abramoff's skybox for a fundraising event.

The complaint alleges the Montana Democrat violated finance laws by waiting almost five years to report costs associated with the fundraiser.

A Baucus spokeswoman called the complaint "complete and total hogwash."

Karl Ohs, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said what Baucus did with the Abramoff skybox contribution is illegal, unethical and a prime example of "why we need tougher campaign finance laws.

In Florida, Abramoff is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 9 for allegedly concocting a fake $23 million wire transfer to make it appear he and his business partner were putting a significant portion of their own money into the 2000 purchase of a fleet of gambling boats.

The ex-business partner, Adam Kidan, pleaded guilty last week and agreed to testify against Abramoff, putting pressure on the Washington lobbyist to reach a settlement to reduce any potential prison term.

Associated Press writers Toni Locy, Sam Hananel and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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