Transcript

Abramoff Pleads Guilty to Felony Charges

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Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Susan Schmidt was online Wednesday, Jan. 4, at noon ET to discuss the plea bargain of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the growing political scandal surrounding his dealings with members of Congress.

Read more : Abramoff Pleads Guilty to 3 Counts , ( Post, Jan. 4, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Austin, Tex.: In your opinion, should Tom DeLay be concerned about what wrong-doings may be linked to him through aides by the Abramoff investigation? According to the quote from DeLay in your article today, he is staying true to his blustery I-can-do-no-wrong style.

Susan Schmidt: One thing this investigation has so far shown is how important it is for members of Congress to know what their staffers are doing in their name. Tom DeLay is feeling the heat on this issue now, with two former staffers--Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon--caught up in this probe. Many other members of Congress are no doubt very worried about the same thing.

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Amanda, Ohio: I heard that Jack Abramoff will be fined 25 million dollars by the federal government. My question is, how will we know that Mr. Abramoff did NOT accept "hush money" from his political cronies in order to pay the 25 million $ fine? If the only thing Abramoff testimony could gain was a shorter sentence I would feel a lot better about the plea bargain.

Thanks.

Susan Schmidt: As part of the plea agreement Abramoff is to make restitution to his clients and to the IRS. The amount he agreed to pay is $26.7 million, which could increase, according to what both sides said in court yesterday. Abramoff has contended he is virtually broke, so it's not clear that he will really come up with that money, and the actual repayment will be worked out at a later hearing. I don't think there is any evidence whatever that he's getting hush money from anyone.

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Tulsa, Okla.: What about the fact that Alice Fischer, the prosecutor on Abramoff's case, is a Bush recess appointment with extensive ties to both the Administration and to DeLay, an obvious next target of the investigation? Shouldn't she recuse herself?

Susan Schmidt: Alice Fisher has been in and out of the Bush Justice Department. Her appointment was held up as a procedural move by a member of the Senate for reasons unrelated to her qualifications. All top DOJ officials are Bush appointees. I am not aware of any ties between Fisher and DeLay. That said, she and other DOJ leaders are going to be scrutinized for any sign they are not pursuing this case aggressively. So far, though, they seem to have made it a high priority.

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Fairfax County, Va.: The Washington Post has done an excellent job of covering this story and should be commended. Why has there been so little coverage of such an important story by the press and the news media in general throughout the rest of the country?

Susan Schmidt: This is really a story that is fundamentally about how Washington works. Maybe that is why the media elsewhere has been a little slow to pick up on it. It may not be seen as relevant until the local congressman is named or the numbers of officials involved reach some sort of critical mass. I think we're at that point.

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Topeka, Kan.: Can you give us an idea of how far-reaching the net will be cast? Will it be limited to the frequently-mentioned characters, or will many more who took money from JA be implicated-criminally, not just politically- in the end?

Susan Schmidt: It's hard to say at this point. Many members of Congress who got money from Abramoff and his tribal clients have been rushing to return it. Part of what that reflects, I think, is the uncertainty among members about how wide this scandal will reach. Plenty of members who did nothing for Indian tribes, and some who even oppose tribal gambling, got contributions. There will be lots of questions about what Abramoff was hoping to get by directing the tribes to donate as they did.

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McLean, Va.: When will he start naming the names? What kind of jail will he go to?

Susan Schmidt: He has already started naming names, as have Michael Scanlon and Adam Kidan, his former business partners. Abramoff has been in extended proffer sessions with prosecutors for several months, telling them what he knows. DOJ officials said yesterday they are moving quickly, so we may see more deals and more indictments soon.

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Leesburg, Va.: Most of the reporting so far has been about initiatives by Abramoff and his colleagues. What about the possibility that members of Congress and their staffs -- particularly committee chairs -- sometimes take the initiative themselves, to shake down the lobbyists?

Susan Schmidt: That is a great question. It's an issue likely to come up a lot in the coming year. Committee chairmen receive huge amounts of money in contributions and dole lots of it out to other members. We are bound to be reading more about the give-and-take that goes on between lobbyists and those chairmen, and the pressure that some lobbyists feel to line up client donations if they want to get a congressman's attention.

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New York, N.Y.: The lawmakers ensnared in the Abramoff scheme are saying they were unaware they had broken a law in defense of their actions. If I broke a law, my not knowing that I had done so is not allowed as a defense. Why do these lawmakers, who should know the law much better than I, think they are allowed this defense?

Susan Schmidt: Ignorance of the law is no defense, especially for people elected to make the law.

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Riverdale, Ga.: Susan,

Many politicians have returned Abramoff's contributions. Will this absolve them from being prosecuted?

Susan Schmidt: No, not if they have done something illegal.

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Prague, Czech Republic: I can see the problem with campaign donations, but a lunch? Does anybody really think that even the sleaziest politician would change his vote for a meal, even a fancy one? Although considering what the Republican congress put some Clinton staffers through (over a plane ride, was it?), it's hard to feel any great deal of sympathy for those who were involved then.

Susan Schmidt: I don't think we are likely to see anyone prosecuted on criminal charges over a lunch. Maybe a lot of lunches, dinners, gifts, job offers etc.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Susan,

When Mr. Abramoff left the courthouse yesterday, he was wearing a black fedora hat and a black belted rain coat. In a society, where hats do seems to be the custom, is there some special symbolism to this outfit?

Susan Schmidt: We've been puzzling over that too. Is that a look?

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Denver, Colo.: What about the Sun Cruz/"Gus" Boulis murder? I know that there have been charges brought for faking money transfers, but has Abramoff been indicted for involvement in the homicide?

Susan Schmidt: No, he has not been implicated in the homicide. Three men have been charged, two of them Gambino family associates who were brought into SunCruz by Abramoff's partner, Adam Kidan.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I am curious, if a Congressman donates his "Abramoff" money to charity is it then tax deductible? Will this be just another way of a wolf wearing sheep's clothing?

Susan Schmidt: The money would be from campaign accounts, so not tax deductible.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: In Dana Milbank's profile on Abramoff, he mentions that Abramoff's restaurant, "Signatures", is now closed. Was that related to Abramoff's current situation (i.e., did he sell it to pay legal bills?), or is it a separate issue?

Susan Schmidt: Signatures was a money loser from the start, and Abramoff in fact was propping the place up with huge expense account tabs he sent to tribal clients, supposedly for entertaining congressmen at the restaurant.

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Charleston, S.C.: What about Abramoff's relationship with Dallah al Baraka, bin Laden's banker? Can you tell us anything about this aspect?

Susan Schmidt: No idea. If anyone knows anything about this, let me know.

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Richmond, Va.: Is there any evidence this Abramoff's dealings lead to the Executive branch?

Susan Schmidt: We've reported extensively on Abramoff's efforts--some of them pretty unorthodox--to influence policymakers at the Department of Interior. Steven Griles, the former deputy secretary, was one of those he was in contact with and discussed hiring.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Hi Susan, great stories so far. How is it the Abramoff could be broke? He had zillions of dollars, it seemed. What gives?

Susan Schmidt: I keep wondering the same thing. We do know he spent millions of dollars on his two restaurants, that he bankrolled a religious academy that educated his children, that he was sending money to settlers on the West Bank for a sniper school. He also lived extravagantly, flying by private jet and buying expensive cars. But that's an awful lot of money to go through. And there is hardly anything left for the lawyers!

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Livingston, N.J.: Most people in Washington knew about Abramoff's power and dealings on K Street. It is hard to believe Congress are acting naive about his dealings now. What are the implications for Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed?

Susan Schmidt: Ralph Reed is running for office in Georgia and this scandal has already dogged his campaign. Given what we know about his dealings with Abramoff, explaining why voters should not see him as a hypocrite is bound to be a continuing problem. It's not easy to sell yourself as a gambling foe when you are getting millions of dollars in gambling proceeds.

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Long Beach, Calif.: I know that Jack Abramoff was not the only lobbyist in Washington to be passing money around. Are any of the others quaking in their boots?

Susan Schmidt: Some are.

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Alexandria, Va.: Even though Abramoff's plea deal includes a recommended sentence between 9.5 and 11 years, the judge reminded him yesterday that she isn't bound by that. Assuming Abramoff cooperates as fully as he can, what risk does he have that the judge will sentence him to the maximum allowed? What track record does this judge have in followed prosecutorial recommendations regarding sentencing?

Susan Schmidt: Those are good questions. You are right, the judge has a free hand at sentencing. Abramoff is no doubt hoping that he will prove so helpful to the government that prosecutors will ask the judge to reduce his sentence even further.

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Wilmington, Del.: It appears to me that influence peddling has been going on for a very long time. People in the community clearly know what's going on. Why now? What does it take for a story to break and it this just one more headline or a chance to change course? Thank you

Susan Schmidt: It seems like every decade or two there is a scandal that temporarily forces a retrenchment of some of the excesses on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers always find a way around the rules eventually.

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Yelm, Wash.: The unregulated nature of these "cruise to nowhere" gambling cruise lines is slowly coming to light by virtue of Abramoff-Kidan/Boulis imbroglio. My question is: Will there be any efforts to clean up the sleazier aspects (money laundering, skimming etc)of that sector ? Will Jeb Bush get any mud on him since the bulk of these cruise lines operate out of Fla. ?

Susan Schmidt: The cruise to nowhere issue has been big in Florida for years--in fact that is why Boulis had to sell his cruise line. State officials who wanted to shut down the cruise line caught him on a legal technicality.

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Perris, Calif.: Hi,

Why this sudden, intense interest in punishing the likes of Abramoff? His 'kind' is constantly on the scene, year in and year out. That's how Washington is....we all know that.

So, why now?

Susan Schmidt: Abramoff was much more blatant about giving and getting favors than any lobbyist in memory. And he became a kingmaker of sorts, sitting on millions of campaign contributions. He is unique.

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Arlington, Va.: This case ought to do for the lobbying industry what Enron/MCI did to corporate America and the securities business. Major reforms are needed.

Let's face it, lobbying is about one thing: amassing access and influence and selling that access and influence to the highest bidder. It's about selling Democracy. We've tried disclosure laws, which clearly don't work. It's time to fundamentally reform the industry.

One place to start: require that all campaign contributions be anonymous. Contributions can go to an account managed by the Federal Election Commission, which then doles out the money based upon the donors' wishes. This would greatly diminish the ability to use money to manipulate our government and erode the foundation of our society.

Susan Schmidt: Interesting idea, but you know the donors would find a way to let it be known they'd contributed. We are likely to see lots of debate about how to police the system this year.

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Washington, D.C.: Susan Ralston, now a special assistant to George W. Bush, previously employed by Karl Rove and prior to that by Abramoff and prior to that by Grover Norquist.

What did she know and when did she know it?

How come you believe that Ralph Reed was the one who co-ordinated her move from Abramoff's office to Karl Rove's office as reported last week.

Doesn't it seem that Abramoff as her employer at that time, and a person very active in placing folks into influential positions, would be very interested in gaining influence by putting his confidential assistant into the White House. He was, after all, an influence peddler and White House access is very, very special influence to be able to peddle.

Wasn't Susan Ralston the Abramoff staffer who co-ordinated the MCI center skybox giveaways to congressmen and staffers?

Susan Schmidt: I have been told by numerous people that Ralph Reed helped Ralston move to the White House. It happened when Abramoff was out of the country. He let people believe he had engineered the move to enhance his appearance of access to Rove.

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Susan Schmidt: Great questions, Thanks everyone.

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