By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 4, 2006; A01
Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful lobbyist at the center of a wide-ranging public corruption investigation, pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in a deal that requires him to provide evidence about members of Congress.
The plea deal could have enormous legal and political consequences for the lawmakers on whom Abramoff lavished luxury trips, skybox fundraisers, campaign contributions, jobs for their spouses, and meals at Signatures, the lobbyist's upscale restaurant.
In court papers, prosecutors refer to only one congressman: Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio). But Abramoff, who built a political alliance with House Republicans, including former majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas, has agreed to provide information and testimony about half a dozen House and Senate members, officials familiar with the inquiry said. He also is to provide evidence about congressional staffers, Interior Department workers and other executive branch officials, and other lobbyists.
"The corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive," Alice S. Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said at a news conference with other high-ranking officials of the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. "We're going to follow this wherever it goes."
Fisher declined to identify the officials under scrutiny. "We name people in indictments," she said, adding: "We are moving very quickly."
Among the allegations in the court documents is that Abramoff arranged for payments totaling $50,000 for the wife of an unnamed congressional staffer in return for the staffer's help in killing an Internet gambling measure. The Washington Post has previously reported that Tony Rudy, a former top aide to DeLay, worked with Abramoff to kill such a bill in 2000 before going to work for Abramoff.
Abramoff's appearance in U.S. District Court came nearly two years after his lobbying practices gained public notice because of the enormous payments -- eventually tallied at $82 million -- that he and a public relations partner received from casino-rich Indian tribes. Yesterday, he admitted defrauding four of those tribal clients out of millions of dollars. He also pleaded guilty to evading taxes, to conspiring to bribe lawmakers, and to conspiring to induce former Capitol Hill staffers to violate the one-year ban on lobbying their former bosses.
Under terms of his plea agreement, Abramoff can expect to receive a jail sentence of 9 1/2 to 11 years, and he is required to make restitution of $26.7 million to the IRS and to the Indian tribes he defrauded. Today he is to plead guilty to fraud and conspiracy counts in a related case in Florida involving his purchase of a casino cruise line.
Standing before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in Washington yesterday, Abramoff looked sheepish and sad. "Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused," he said softly. "All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer."
Abramoff has been in extensive discussions with government lawyers for months leading up to yesterday's plea.
Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, is among the first of those expected to feel the fallout. In the court documents -- which identify him only as "Representative #1" -- Ney is accused of meeting with one of Abramoff's clients in Russia in 2003 to "influence the process for obtaining a [U.S.] visa" for one of the client's relatives and of agreeing to aid a California tribe represented by Abramoff on tax and post office issues.
Ney also placed comments in the Congressional Record backing Abramoff's efforts to gain control of the Florida gambling company, SunCruz Casinos, and offered legislative language sought by Abramoff that would have reopened a Texas tribe's shuttered casino.
The court papers said Ney advanced the prospects of an Abramoff client, a telecommunications company that won a contract to wire the House.
Two of Abramoff's former partners have already pleaded guilty and have promised to cooperate in the ongoing investigation of congressional corruption and are prepared to testify against Ney in connection with his aid in the SunCruz purchase. Prosecutors in Florida and Washington are in discussions about where a case against Ney should be brought, officials said.
Ney reiterated yesterday that he had done nothing wrong and said he was misled by Abramoff.
One of Abramoff's former associates, Michael Scanlon, a onetime press aide to DeLay, was a secret partner in Abramoff's Indian tribal scheme. Abramoff not only charged the tribes lobbying fees but also urged them to hire Scanlon's public relations firm at hugely inflated prices. Scanlon, in turn, kicked back half of the money to Abramoff, who was thus able to conceal the funds from public disclosure and even from the lobbyist's law firm.
They spread tribal money around and sought legislative favors in return. Abramoff and Scanlon "offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for official acts and influence and agreements to provide official action and influence," a statement of facts attached to the plea agreement said. "These things of value included, but are not limited to, foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support for candidates for government office, employment for relatives of officials and campaign contributions."
Among the things of interest to investigators are payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and actions taken by Rudy and other senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, lawyers and others familiar with the probe said.
Another person under scrutiny, sources said, is DeLay, who is facing separate campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas.
"Tom DeLay is not concerned that Mr. Abramoff is cooperating," said Richard Cullen, his attorney. "He urges everyone involved to cooperate in the investigation and to tell the truth." Cullen had no comment on allegations involving former DeLay aides Rudy and Scanlon.
Among the trips under scrutiny is a golf excursion to Scotland that DeLay and aides took with Abramoff in 2000 and a similar trip Ney took two years later.
DeLay has taken three overseas trips with Abramoff since 1997 -- to the Mariana Islands, Russia and Scotland -- and received more than $70,000 from Abramoff, his associates and tribal clients for his campaign committees.
Investigating DeLay, who is facing campaign finance charges in Texas, could take up to a year and require the cooperation of other witnesses before issues surrounding the Texas Republican are resolved, according to people familiar with the case.
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and other legislators involved with Indian issues are among those being investigated, sources said.
A spokesman for Doolittle, whose wife received payments from Abramoff's lobbying firm, has previously said there was no connection with her husband's work. Burns's office has said his actions on behalf of Abramoff's tribal clients were in sync with his support for improving the lot of Indian tribes.
Also of interest to prosecutors is former deputy interior secretary J. Steven Griles, who held the job from 2001 to 2004. He has said he never tried to intercede on behalf of Abramoff's clients, but e-mails released by a Senate committee show more than half a dozen contacts Griles had with Abramoff or with a woman working as the lobbyist's go-between.
Prosecutors are continuing to investigate two of DeLay's top former deputies, Rudy and Edwin A. Buckham. Rudy is under investigation for assistance he allegedly provided Abramoff's lobbying clients while he was working for DeLay. Payments from Abramoff clients and associates to Liberty Consulting -- a political firm founded by Rudy's wife, Lisa -- are also under review by the Justice Department. Rudy did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Abramoff maintained a business relationship with Buckham, who runs the Alexander Strategy Group with Rudy. Among the areas of interest to prosecutors is client business directed to the Alexander Strategy Group when the firm was hiring the spouses of members of Congress, including DeLay's wife, Christine.
Christine DeLay was paid about $115,000 over three years while performing a special project -- contacting members of Congress to find out their favorite charity, according to her attorney.
Fisher, offering the Justice Department's first public comments on an inquiry that began in spring 2004, said that the Abramoff case is "very active and ongoing." She said the department is committed to making sure that people know "government is not for sale."