In Florida, Abramoff Again Pleads Guilty
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's second guilty plea in two days sealed his role as a star witness in the federal government's largest congressional corruption investigation in decades.
Abramoff admitted in U.S. District Court yesterday in Miami that he engaged in fraud and conspiracy in his purchase of a fleet of SunCruz casino boats in 2000, when he presented lenders with a counterfeit document showing that he and a partner had put $23 million into the deal. In fact, Abramoff and partner Adam Kidan put virtually no money into the purchase, and the cruise line went bankrupt the following year.
The appearance was made a day after Abramoff pleaded guilty in Washington to defrauding Indian tribe clients, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes. The Florida and Washington cases were resolved together in an agreement that requires the ex-lobbyist to provide evidence and testimony in the Justice Department's probe of corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies.
Kidan and another Abramoff partner, Michael Scanlon, already have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. To learn more about the actions of members of Congress, prosecutors are now expected to turn their attention to congressional aides and former Capitol Hill staffers who went to work for Abramoff.
While Abramoff's cooperation is a major boon to prosecutors, his admissions of fraud this week also could provide ammunition against him if he testifies against lawmakers, some ethics lawyers said.
"He defrauded the tribes, he defrauded his law firms, so why isn't it that he defrauded public officials, as well?" asked Jan W. Baran, an attorney at Wiley Rein & Fielding. "Proving somebody accepted campaign contributions and expense-paid trips and then did something of benefit for Abramoff is not in and of itself proving bribery."
To make a bribery case against a legislator, prosecutors would need to prove that lawmakers knew Abramoff's gifts were in exchange for specific actions. Many legislators under investigation, such as Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), have denied any wrongdoing and have said that, like the tribes, they were defrauded by Abramoff.
"I think it is bigger than any congressional scandal I can remember, and, certainly politically, it touches hundreds of members," said Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission attorney. "Still, I think it is a tough case. This is by no means a slam-dunk for the government, even with Abramoff part of the prosecution team now."
The legal standard for proving bribery is high because of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in 1999 requiring prosecutors to show that gifts were given for specific government action. In the case, the court threw out the conviction of Sun-Diamond, a California cooperative accused of illegally showering Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with sports tickets, meals and other gifts. The court said it was not enough that the cooperative had two regulatory issues before the department.
"The standard that was set forth in the Espy case set a very high bar for quid pro quo and corrupt intent," Gross said.
Attorneys, however, noted that there are key differences in the Abramoff case. "In Espy, they didn't have the equivalent of an Abramoff or Scanlon connecting the dots," Gross said. "Here they are armed with that additional arsenal in that case."
Stanley M. Brand, a former House counsel who was involved in the Sun-Diamond case, said that the Abramoff investigation appears to exceed the standard set by the Supreme Court. "In a case of nuance, when you don't have eyewitnesses who are participants in a transaction, you have a problem," Brand said. "In this case, you do. The jury will have no problem convicting if they have three eyewitnesses."
Abramoff's sentence in the Florida case is to be served concurrently with the penalty in the Washington case. If he lives up to the terms of his plea agreement, he is expected to face about 10 years in prison.
R. Alexander Acosta, the acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said the Florida investigation is continuing, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence LaVecchio. Florida prosecutors are working closely with attorneys from the Department of Justice's fraud and public integrity sections, who are overseeing a multiagency task force of 35 to 40 lawyers and investigators.
In Washington, the case is being run by Noel Hillman and Mary K. Butler of the public integrity section, and acting fraud section chief Paul E. Pelletier, along with prosecuting attorney Guy D. Singer.
One of the key investigative strands that involves authorities in Florida and Washington is the investigation of Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee. Ney, who received favors and contributions from Abramoff, placed comments in the Congressional Record that pressured SunCruz's owner, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, to sell his fleet to Abramoff and Kidan.
Boulis died in a gangland-style hit a few months later. Three men, including two associates of Kidan, have been charged in the killing.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.