By Del Quentin Wilber and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 5, 2008
Jack Abramoff, the powerhouse Washington lobbyist who admitted running a wide-ranging corruption scheme that ensnared lawmakers, Capitol Hill aides and government officials, yesterday received a reduced sentence of four years in prison because of his cooperation with federal investigators.
Abramoff, 49, already has served nearly two years for his conviction in a related Florida fraud case. The sentence yesterday by U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle means that the former Republican lobbyist will likely remain in prison until 2012.
More than a dozen people, including an Ohio congressman and a deputy secretary of the interior, have been convicted in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, and Justice Department officials said the investigation is continuing. Still under scrutiny are former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and retiring Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.).
With his wife and children sitting just a few feet away in a packed courtroom, Abramoff choked back tears yesterday as he watched lawyers argue over his sentence. He then told Huvelle that he was sorry for his crimes, adding that he was no longer the person "who happily and arrogantly engaged in a lifestyle of political corruption and business corruption."
"I am sorry, so sorry that I have put everyone through this," Abramoff said.
Under federal guidelines, Huvelle could have sentenced Abramoff to as much as 12 1/2 years. She said she had to weigh the former lobbyist's help against what she described as offenses that seriously affected "the public's confidence in the integrity of the government."
"This is a very challenging case," Huvelle said, adding that "there was a consistent course of corrupt conduct and, in a sense, it got much worse over time."
Prosecutors had asked for a lesser sentence because of Abramoff's cooperation -- three years and three months. In court papers, the prosecutors wrote that Abramoff has described in detail how he and other lobbyists supplied meals, gifts, trips and "a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a stream of official action."
"He has helped us enormously in ferreting out from a huge database of allegations what really is criminal," Mary K. Butler, a Justice prosecutor, told Huvelle. "That help alone saved the government countless resources."
Abramoff's attorneys sought an even more lenient sentence that could have allowed their client to be released as early as 2010. His lead lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, told Huvelle that such a sentence was appropriate because Abramoff was a devoted family man and donated much of his income and time to charity work. "The myth of Jack Abramoff can overtake the actual man," Lowell said.
Huvelle received more than 350 letters in Abramoff's behalf.
The Justice Department said it has garnered 13 guilty pleas from public officials and lobbyists in the Abramoff case. The conviction of David H. Safavian, a former top official at the General Services Administration, was overturned in June by an appeals court; a retrial is scheduled for December.
Among those who have pleaded guilty are former congressman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who was released from federal prison last month; Tony Rudy, a former deputy chief of staff to DeLay; and J. Steven Griles, former deputy secretary at the Interior Department.
In April, a former high-ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert E. Coughlin II, pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in meals and sports tickets from Abramoff and his lobbyists in exchange for helping their clients.
At the height of his influence, Abramoff moved easily in the corridors of Washington power, from Capitol Hill to the White House, where he was photographed with President Bush. The lobbyist joined the Republican Party in college and campaigned hard for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He later became the national chairman of the College Republicans.
Abramoff eventually joined the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, where he established a group of lobbyists who pushed aggressively for their clients, many of whom were casino-rich Indian tribes. Abramoff and his colleagues dished out campaign donations, luxury boxes, and tickets to sporting events and concerts, and paid for lavish golf trips to buy influence with public officials. His D.C. restaurant, Signatures, "hemorrhaged money, in part because Abramoff regularly provided free or discounted meals and drinks to public officials," prosecutors wrote in court filings.
He also hired the spouses of public officials and the companies they operated, including a consulting firm owned by Rudy's wife.
In exchange, public officials helped Abramoff's clients win millions of dollars in federal grants and funding. They also tipped the lobbyists off to internal government deliberations and inserted helpful language into bills.
Abramoff admitted that he and a former associate, Michael Scanlon, a onetime press aide to DeLay, concocted a kickback scheme that defrauded the Indian tribes of millions of dollars. Abramoff directed the tribes to hire Scanlon's public relations firm at hugely inflated prices. The men then split the profits. Scanlon has pleaded guilty but has not yet been sentenced.
The judge yesterday also ordered Abramoff to pay $23 million in restitution to the tribes and other victims. About $8 million has already been paid back, Huvelle said.
Bernie Sprague of the Saginaw Chippewa in Michigan told Huvelle yesterday that Abramoff's actions cost his tribe millions of dollars and emotional heartache. "It totally destroyed our tribe," Sprague said. "All he was worried about was Jack. Jack has to get his next big check. . . . That was the only thing on his mind."
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January 2006 to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. The next day, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami to fraud and conspiracy charges tied to his purchase of a fleet of SunCruz casino boats.
He was sentenced in the Florida case to five years and 10 months in prison and began serving his time in November of that year. Last week, prosecutors asked the judge to reduce his sentence in that case to three years and nine months because the former lobbyist has been so helpful. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for next week.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that although Abramoff expressed remorse in court, he has spent his time in prison cooperating with a book that portrays him as an innocent man targeted by biased prosecutors, reporters and political enemies.
The AP said it had obtained an advance copy of "The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff," by Gary Chafetz, which blames The Washington Post and Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whose Senate committee investigated Abramoff. "I never expected that I would have to go to prison," Abramoff says in the book, "until it became clear that the media could not allow this play to close without the hanging of the villain."