Throughout a City, Lessons of the Fall

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

It was just past noon yesterday, about the time Jack Abramoff would be sitting down to lunch at Signatures, the restaurant he owned at Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Over the roasted waluu ($19) or perhaps a starter of Kobe pot stickers ($12), he would be securing favors for his lobbying clients from well-fed lawmakers.

But the doors were locked at Signatures yesterday, the political memorabilia removed from the walls, the tablecloths gone, trash on the floor, dishes stacked on tables and stools stored on the counter of the still-stocked bar. A Zagat sticker in the window prematurely promised: "Rated Excellent 2006."

Instead of a table at the now-defunct restaurant, Abramoff had a lunchtime appointment three blocks down Pennsylvania, at the federal courthouse. There, in black raincoat and fedora, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax offenses that could cost him $25 million and put him behind bars for at a least a decade.

"I just want to say words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes," Abramoff, slouched over the defense table, said quickly and softly into the microphone. "For 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 cut a wretched figure as he shuffled into the courtroom of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. The once-athletic lobbyist was slouching, his newly overweight frame wrapped in a double-breasted suit. His hand shook when he took his oath. After his plea, he closed his eyes and looked as if he were going to cry. He accepted soothing pats on the back from his lawyer. He clasped his hands together and rubbed fingers as if attempting to thumb-wrestle himself. Only the cufflinks and sharp blue tie hinted at the vast wealth and power Abramoff had amassed.

Abramoff was not alone in his misery. Away on an extended recess, lawmakers and staffers who were involved in the lobbyist's schemes had to worry that Abramoff would testify against them. And President Bush, who had returned to Washington with hopes of switching the debate to comfortable terrain such as taxes and terrorism, would be bumped out of the news by more scandal.

"Culture of corruption," howled House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean demanded that Bush return more than $100,000 raised for him by Abramoff.

The lobbyist's old friends and beneficiaries only piled on. "Self-serving and fraudulent," charged Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), aka "Representative #1" in court papers.

"Outrageous," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

In public, Abramoff's only defenders yesterday were of the $500-per-hour variety. Superlawyer Abbe Lowell, complete with pocket handkerchief, did his best to help his client. He lent him a pen. He poured him some Poland Spring water. He stood at Abramoff's side and guided his client as he went through the plea ceremony.

"I am 46 years old, Your Honor," Abramoff told the judge. "I graduated from Georgetown University Law School."

Without hesitation, the defendant said he was giving up his right to trial without the influence of drugs or mental illness. But when Huvelle went through his misdeeds, Abramoff's voice grew tight and quiet.

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