By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
A former senior staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the public by steering potential clients and inside government information to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for cash, gifts and the promise of a high-paying job on K Street.
Mark Dennis Zachares admitted to prosecutors that he accepted more than $30,000 in tickets to 40 sporting events, a luxury golf trip to Scotland and $10,000 in cash from Abramoff and his lobbying team. He acknowledged providing them with information about the reorganization of the Homeland Security Department, federal disaster and highway aid, and maritime issues.
Zachares is scheduled to appear in court today to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. The Justice Department's public integrity section filed a criminal information in U.S. District Court yesterday outlining the case against him.
Zachares is the 11th person to plead guilty in the Abramoff investigation. Earlier this month, the FBI searched the home office of Julie Doolittle, wife of Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), another politician whose actions have drawn scrutiny from a task force of 40 federal prosecutors and investigators.
Edward B. MacMahon Jr., an attorney for Zachares, declined to comment on the court filing or on whether his client is cooperating in the investigation.
Zachares's case embodies two of Abramoff's hallmarks: seeking to place allies in government jobs so he could gain influence, and winning favors for clients by dangling lucrative lobbying jobs before congressional staffers.
"Zachares would and did use his Congressional position to develop the contacts and influence that would make Zachares valuable as a future lobbyist working with Abramoff, and would and did use his position to refer potential clients to Abramoff's lobbying firm," the court papers said. "In return, Abramoff would 'credit' Zachares with the 'business,' " ultimately "warranting a high annual salary."
Abramoff and Zachares met in the 1990s, when Zachares was working for the attorney general of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth that paid Abramoff $7 million to fight off attempts in Congress to impose minimum-wage laws there.
In late 2000 and 2001, Abramoff tried to get the Bush White House to hire Zachares as director of insular affairs at the Interior Department, a post in which he could aid the Northern Marianas and other Abramoff clients. The Washington Post previously reported that Abramoff contacted his former assistant, Susan Ralston, who went to work for White House political aide Karl Rove, seeking the position for Zachares. Ralston refused to arrange a meeting, and Zachares did not get the job.
Zachares told Abramoff in a Nov. 26, 2002, e-mail that he "really could make things happen if [Zachares] got over" to Homeland Security. That year, Zachares solicited and received two $5,000 payments from Capital Athletic Foundation, a purported charity controlled by Abramoff.
With assistance from Abramoff, according to the court documents, Zachares finally landed a job on the staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then chaired by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). Young's office did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
In March 2003, when Zachares was staff director for the Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee, Abramoff e-mailed a lobbying colleague about an upcoming meeting between Zachares and two other lobbyists at their firm, Greenberg Traurig. "We can get a ton of new clients together, and they can do the work, with Zack pulling our load inside," Abramoff wrote.
The same year, Zachares went on a luxury golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff, other lobbyists, Hill staffers and Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). In January, the House ethics committee said the trip violated House rules and Feeney reimbursed the U.S. Treasury $5,643 for the cost.
A Feeney spokeswoman said the Justice Department has contacted the congressman "to request more information."