Witness May Have Pivotal Role in Probe of Alleged Corruption

By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Before he hit his mid-thirties, Michael Scanlon played enough roles to fill a lifetime: lifeguard, press aide to a powerful congressman, multimillionaire public relations entrepreneur.

Now the sandy-haired, buttoned-down Republican -- author of e-mails detailing wildly brash schemes to make money in politics -- is likely to take a turn as a star witness for the prosecution in the Justice Department's investigation of lawmakers, lobbyists, Capitol Hill staffers and executive branch officials.

Scanlon's help could be important to the probe, which focuses on the activities of former influential lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Scanlon was Abramoff's closest business partner at the height of the lobbyist's power, joining in an enterprise that collected $82 million in fees from Indian tribes between 2000 and 2004.

On Friday, Scanlon was charged with conspiracy, accused of plotting with Abramoff to defraud the tribes and bribe government officials, including a member of Congress. He is to appear in court tomorrow to enter a guilty plea worked out with prosecutors who have spent nearly two years sifting through the deals that made Scanlon a rich man almost overnight.

His cooperation also increases pressure on Abramoff to make his own deal with the prosecution. Abramoff has told his legal team that despite the millions of dollars he brought in, he is all but out of money, lawyers in the case said. Abramoff and another business partner are facing trial in Florida on separate fraud charges.

Scanlon has more to show from his alliance with Abramoff. He was a reporter-friendly spokesman for then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in 2000 when he quit Capitol Hill to join forces with Abramoff. Soon he was raking in a seven-figure salary, astounding former colleagues as he shed his student loans and picked up a mansion on the Delaware shore, an estate in St. Barts and an in-town apartment at the Ritz-Carlton in the District.

E-mail released by Senate investigators shows that Scanlon and Abramoff referred to their secret partnership as "gimme five" -- code for their arrangement to split tens of millions of dollars in profits Scanlon's firm was taking in from the tribes. Abramoff, who cultivated a reputation as the best-connected Republican lobbyist in Washington, typically urged his tribal clients to hire Scanlon, never telling them he would be getting a chunk of the fees they paid Scanlon.

As a witness in the wide-ranging, influence-peddling probe of Abramoff and government officials, Scanlon may have knowledge of many areas of interest to investigators. In addition to Abramoff's dealings with the tribes, Scanlon was in a position to know whether lawmakers and their aides provided legislative favors for Abramoff's lobbying clients, including the tribes. E-mail shows Abramoff often talked of gaining sway over key officials at the Interior Department, which plays a regulatory role in tribal land issues and Indian gambling operations.

Scanlon's cooperation is crucial to helping prosecutors prove that any favor to a lawmaker was in explicit exchange for an official act, said Leonard Garment, an attorney for President Nixon during Watergate.

"It is important because you have direct evidence from someone who was involved who can testify with respect to the payment of money or some other thing of value to the legislator," Garment said.

"Scanlon presumably is in a position to say that it wasn't just ordinary assistance of a neutral or innocent character, that it was a quid pro quo, that if you vote a certain way or introduce a certain bill, I will pay you money or give you a brace of tickets to a Washington Redskins game. That is the way a case is proved."

Scanlon, a relatively junior member of DeLay's staff -- he refers to his former boss as "Mr. DeLay" -- may not have been privy to all of DeLay's dealings with Abramoff, a lobbyist the Texas lawmaker once called "one of my closest and dearest friends." But Scanlon could be a guide to the activities of top House GOP staffers, some of whom are now lobbyists and political consultants who work closely with DeLay, now the former majority leader.

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