Storm Clouds Gathering
Source: Scandal could take in at least a dozen in Congress
It's been two years now since federal investigators began trying to untangle the dealings of Washington uberlobbyist Jack Abramoff. But what was once a potential scandal looming over the horizon is now looking more ominous by the day.
Last week's guilty plea by Abramoff's onetime partner, a former top aide to the beleaguered Rep. Tom DeLay, darkened the skies further. Michael Scanlon's admission he had conspired to bribe public officials and defrauded four Indian gaming casinos of millions in fees effectively makes him the government's star witness in a probe that threatens to ensnare officials throughout the nation's capital.
U.S. News has learned that the conduct of at least a dozen representatives and senators is now being scrutinized by a small army of federal prosecutors and FBI agents. According to sources familiar with the inquiry, a federal task force, which includes investigators from the Interior Department--which has authority to regulate Indian reservations--is examining the relationships between lawmakers and Scanlon and Abramoff. A key question is whether the lawmakers took official actions after receiving campaign contributions, free trips, or other gifts from the lobbyists, the sources say.
Trouble. Despite Scanlon's deal with the government, there is no indication yet that Abramoff has made such an arrangement. If he cooperates, one source said, it would spell big problems for some lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill. Abramoff, the source said, "arguably has bigger problems than Scanlon. The question is: What is the government willing to give up?"
Abramoff's Washington connections run wide and deep. His biggest clients were Indian tribes running casinos in several states, and he and Scanlon billed them more than $80 million. "It could be the biggest congressional scandal in modern times," says Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a nonprofit campaign-finance reform organization.
In his plea agreement, Scanlon said that he and Abramoff, referred to as "Lobbyist A," provided travel, golf fees, entertainment, and campaign contributions to public officials "in exchange for a series of official acts and influence." At least one congressman, widely believed to be Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, received trips to the Super Bowl in Tampa and to Scotland, meals at a restaurant owned by Abramoff, and campaign contributions.
Ney provided "official acts" to Abramoff, including helping a client secure a telephone contract for the House of Representatives and placing a statement drafted by Scanlon into the Congressional Record criticizing the owner of a casino boat company that Abramoff wanted to buy. Abramoff has also been indicted on fraud charges in connection with that failed purchase. A Ney spokesman says, "All that this plea agreement shows is that Mr. Scanlon had a deliberate . . . scheme to defraud many people, and it appears, unfortunately, that Representative Ney was one of the many people defrauded."
So far, the investigation has resulted in the resignation only of the chief procurement officer at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who was indicted on charges of lying to investigators. Still, there are suddenly lots of folks with the shivers on Capitol Hill--and it's not just because of the change in the weather.
This story appears in the December 5, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.