By PETE YOST
The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 9:04 PM
WASHINGTON -- A former congressional aide pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in an influence-peddling scandal that has touched the White House, Interior Department and congressional Republicans.
Mark Zachares was the 11th person to be convicted in the Justice Department probe.
Zachares admitted engaging in official acts on Abramoff's behalf while working for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Abramoff assisted Zachares in obtaining his committee post. Zachares left Young's staff in 2005. Young's office declined to comment Tuesday.
"Guilty, your honor," Zachares told U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle who asked what plea he would enter to a single count of conspiracy. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines will probably face two years or less.
After the court appearance, defense attorney Edward MacMahon declined to say whether Young was aware of what Zachares was doing on behalf of Abramoff.
Zachares agreed to cooperate with the government's continuing investigation and outside the courthouse MacMahon reinforced that point to reporters .
The former Republican aide is the fifth congressional staffer to plead guilty in the Abramoff scandal, including two ex-aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Zachares provided information to Abramoff about pending congressional actions on the reorganization of federal agencies into the Homeland Security Department.
In court, Zachares admitted that Abramoff and his lobbying team supplied him with $30,000 worth of tickets to sporting events and concerts on more than 40 occasions in 18 months from mid-2002 to early 2004.
Zachares accompanied Abramoff and six others including Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., on a $160,000 golf junket to Scotland in 2003, according to the conspiracy count to which Zachares pleaded guilty.
Feeney's office said the Justice Department has contacted the congressman to request more information and that Feeney is cooperating.
Early this year, Feeney agreed to reimburse the government $5,643 for the Scotland trip that Abramoff, Zachares and the others took.
Zachares "falsely reported the cost of transportation, lodging and meals as only $5,643, a figure coordinated with Abramoff to be substantially identical as the figures other attendees, including Representative #3, would report," according to a statement of facts which Zachares signed March 14.
"Representative #3" is a reference to Feeney. After the guilty plea, Feeney's office said only that the congressman "is anxious to discuss this matter at the appropriate time."
During the court proceeding, Justice Department attorney Richard Pilger disclosed that Zachares' wife also is in legal jeopardy.
Pilger said the government will offer an agreement not to prosecute Cynthia Zachares in exchange for her complete cooperation. Pilger revealed that investigators questioned her on Feb. 23. Pilger did not describe Cynthia Zachares' role. Outside the courthouse, MacMahon refused to comment on the matter.
Zachares and Abramoff became professional acquaintances when Zachares worked for the attorney general in Saipan, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The island government paid Abramoff over $7 million for lobbying from 1996 to 2001.
In early 2002, Zachares accepted $10,000 in wire transfers from Abramoff as the two men discussed Zachares' Washington, D.C., employment prospects.
The congressional staffer supplied Abramoff contact information for prospective businesses that would be affected by the creation of the Homeland Security Department.
The two men worked out a "two-year plan" in which Abramoff would build a homeland security lobbying practice that Zachares ultimately would join.
The papers also state that Zachares:
_Expressed willingness to help Abramoff regarding the lobbyist's SunCruz venture, which involved the purchase of a fleet of Florida gambling boats. Zachares offered to help with administrative issues involving the U.S. Maritime Administration, which regulated financial assistance Abramoff was seeking for SunCruz.
_Advanced Abramoff's prospective business with the territory of Guam through Zachares' official influence over disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
_Discussed with Abramoff developing a maritime lobbying practice in which Zachares and lobbyists would secure official action on maritime issues for Abramoff clients.
_Coordinated with Abramoff how Zachares could advance federal support for a highway project benefiting a businessman who was not identified in court or in government documents filed in the case.