Running For Cover
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be about to cut a deal, and that's bad news for a lot of folks in the capital
It hasn't been a really happy holiday season for Jack Abramoff. With two of his closest business partners turning against him, and with mounting legal bills forcing him to sell off assets, the onetime Washington uberlobbyist is now reportedly close to cutting his own deal with federal investigators, a development that would send shock waves through Washington. Abramoff's testimony could implicate lawmakers in a vast influence-peddling case, and those once friendly with the man known as "Casino Jack" are now ducking for cover.
For months, a federal task force has been investigating at least a dozen public officials, including lawmakers and their aides, who may have received campaign contributions and other perks to help Abramoff's clients. Now the circle appears to be closing. In late November, Abramoff's right-hand man, Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges. Scanlon admitted that he and Abramoff defrauded several Indian tribes of $82 million and gave gifts to lawmakers to benefit their clients. Three weeks later, Adam Kidan, Abramoff's business partner in the purchase of a Florida-based casino boat firm, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy and agreed to testify against Abramoff. Prosecutors say the two men forged documents and lied about their finances during the purchase; the man they bought the company from was later murdered, though no one has alleged that Abramoff or Kidan was involved in the crime. Abramoff, who is scheduled to stand trial next week as the only remaining defendant in the case, is reportedly close to an agreement with prosecutors that might include cooperation with investigators looking into his lobbying tactics. A spokesman for Abramoff declined to comment.
Entanglements. The scandal has already ensnared Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican. In his plea, Scanlon said Ney was the recipient of $14,000 in campaign contributions and lavish perks, including trips to the Super Bowl and meals at Abramoff's Washington restaurant, in return for favors. Ney placed a statement in the Congressional Record praising Kidan and Abramoff's purchase of the casino boat firm; the congressman has denied any wrongdoing, saying he was duped by the lobbyists. Rep. John Doolittle, a California Republican who received campaign contributions from Abramoff, is also under scrutiny. His wife's event-planning company was hired by Abramoff and has been subpoenaed by investigators. Doolittle has also denied wrongdoing.
Other lawmakers are scrambling to return campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 210 federal lawmakers have received donations to their campaigns or political action committees from either Abramoff or his clients, since 1999; most big recipients were Republicans. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who's up for re-election this year, has returned $150,000, saying the donations "served to undermine the public's confidence in its government." According to a recent poll, 58 percent of Montana voters are concerned about the lawmaker's ties to Abramoff. Burns's lead over the closest Democratic challenger has slipped from 15 percentage points in May to 6 points last month.
Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, is returning roughly $19,000. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is investigating Abramoff, is returning $67,000. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican, returned $18,000 to Indian tribes and donated to charity the $2,000 he received directly from Abramoff. "Let's just clear the air. Let's not have any whiff untoward about the contribution," says Erik Iverson, Rehberg's chief of staff. For some lawmakers, though, it may be a bit too late to remove the taint of Casino Jack.
This story appears in the January 9, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.