Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a business partner were indicted by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy in their purchase of a fleet of Florida gambling boats from a businessman who was later killed in a gangland-style hit.
Abramoff, 46, was arrested in Los Angeles in the late afternoon and was expected to be taken before a U.S. magistrate there on Friday. He was indicted along with Adam Kidan, the former owner of the Dial-a-Mattress franchise in Washington. Kidan, 41, of New York City, will surrender to the FBI here by Friday morning, his attorney, Martin I. Jaffe, said in a written statement.
Five years ago, while he was still one of the capital's most prominent Republican lobbyists, Abramoff, with Kidan and former Reagan administration official Ben Waldman of Springfield, Va., took over SunCruz Casinos. The company operated a fleet of gambling boats from as many as 11 ports in Florida. Although the indictment does not detail the effort, Abramoff leveraged his connections with members of Congress to advance the SunCruz deal, according to interviews and thousands of documents, court records and e-mails filed in related bankruptcy cases.
Abramoff's spokesman in New York, Andrew Blum, declined to comment, referring calls to Abramoff's Miami attorney, Neal Sonnett, who did not return calls. Kidan said in a statement that he had cooperated with investigators, adding: "I did nothing wrong and these allegations are totally unfounded."
Each of the six counts in the indictment could bring a punishment of as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Federal authorities are also seeking $60 million from Abramoff and Kidan, the money lost by a lender they had sought out to help finance the casino ships' purchase.
The indictment marks the first formal charges against Abramoff, who has been at the center of a Washington controversy this year involving the large sums of money he collected from Indian casino interests and the influence he exerted on their behalf.
Abramoff and Kidan are accused of faking a wire transfer of $23 million, the equity they had agreed to put into the $147.5 million purchase of SunCruz from Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, the multimillionaire founder of the popular Miami Subs chain of sandwich shops. The wire transfer, said R. Alexander Acosta, the U.S. attorney here, "was counterfeit."
"The defendants never transferred the funds and never made a cash equity contribution toward the purchase of SunCruz," Acosta said.
As part of the fraud, Abramoff and Kidan lied on their personal financial disclosure statements, the indictment alleges. The two also used money borrowed from individuals, which they called "flash funds," to lead "potential lenders to believe [they] had the necessary funding to complete the sale of SunCruz," the indictment alleges. In reality, they did not have those funds, according to the indictment.
"Abramoff and Kidan did not put any of their own money into this deal," said Timothy J. Delaney, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office.
After the sale, Boulis retained a piece of the business, but relations among the partners quickly soured, according to lawsuits and bankruptcy records. Boulis accused Kidan of maintaining connections to organized crime, and he and Kidan came to blows during a business meeting.
On Feb. 6, 2001, Boulis was killed as he drove home from a business meeting by someone in a Mustang who fired three hollow-point bullets into his chest. No one has been arrested in the slaying.
Today, the SunCruz casino boats are sailing under new ownership after a bankruptcy auction. Foothill Capital sued the partners in the deal over the $60 million in loans, eventually settling with Waldman for $450,000 and with Abramoff for an undisclosed amount. Litigation continues with Kidan.
Federal authorities sidestepped specific mention of Abramoff's high-powered political connections. At an afternoon news conference here, Acosta did not mention Abramoff's use of congressional contacts to seal the SunCruz deal. The closest officials came to doing so was when Delaney said that, "regardless of position, status, wealth or associations, fraudulent activity will not be tolerated."
But Abramoff's dealings with SunCruz were intertwined with his relationships with powerful members of Congress and their staffs. As the negotiations warmed up, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's office -- he was the House minority whip then -- gave Boulis a flag that had flown over the Capitol. And as the SunCruz deal was closing, Abramoff brought his lead financier to a DeLay fundraiser in the lobbyist's box at FedEx Field during a Monday Night Football game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys.
To help land the deal, an Abramoff associate, Michael Scanlon, persuaded Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to officially criticize Boulis in the Congressional Record; later, Ney praised Kidan in the official publication of Congress.
Abramoff listed Tony Rudy, a top DeLay aide at the time, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) as personal references on his loan papers. And he flew key members of DeLay's staff -- including his current chief of staff -- on a SunCruz jet and took them for a night of gambling on a SunCruz boat at the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa. The Super Bowl trip came just days before Boulis's slaying.
Ney has said he was duped by Abramoff and Scanlon. DeLay's spokesmen have said he does not remember meeting the banker or sending the flag. His spokesman declined to comment. Rudy has declined to comment. Rohrabacher has said he gladly served as a reference for Abramoff.
An FBI official said Thursday that the case is still under investigation, but he indicated that no other arrests are imminent.
In a separate Washington investigation, a task force of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies is exploring how Abramoff and Scanlon collected $82 million in fees for lobbying and public affairs work from Indian tribes around the country.
The task force is also investigating whether Abramoff and his associates exerted improper influence over members of Congress and federal agencies on behalf of their clients.
Sources familiar with the probe, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Scanlon and his attorneys have been in discussions with the Justice Department for several months. He and the lawyers have not returned phone calls seeking comment on the investigation.
Scanlon has knowledge of both SunCruz, for whom he did public relations work, and dealings between Abramoff and members of Congress and their staffs. Of particular interest to prosecutors would be Scanlon's knowledge of whether trips, campaign contributions or favors were given in exchange for legislation.
The heart of the alleged fraud was the $23 million wire transfer, faxed by Kidan and Waldman to the partners' key lender -- Foothill Capital, now part of Wells Fargo Bank. It was intended to persuade lenders to provide $60 million in financing to Abramoff's group to be used for the $147.5 million purchase.
The fax from Kidan and Waldman appeared to confirm a transfer of the money from Kidan's account at Chevy Chase Bank to the seller's bank. But Chevy Chase Bank later said that Kidan's account had already been closed at the time of the purported wire transfer. Foothill now contends that the faxed document was a forgery, and that later it was told that Boulis had accepted a $20 million note instead of cash.
Waldman was not indicted on Thursday. Asked whether Waldman was a suspect or a witness, Acosta said: "I'm not going to discuss whether someone may or may not be a witness."
Abramoff said in court papers that he was unaware of the fraud and was shocked to learn of it months after it occurred. But the indictment cites a Sept. 22, 2000, closing document signed by Abramoff. The court file in the SunCruz bankruptcy case includes a similar document with Abramoff's signature certifying that he and Kidan put up the $23 million.
Three months after the sale closed, trouble between Boulis and the other partners began to boil over. Abramoff said in a court filing later that in November 2000 he went to Miami to mediate and was "flabbergasted" that Kidan had never paid Boulis the $23 million for the company.
Yet other records show that Abramoff continued to back Kidan in the growing discord with Boulis.
In December, the rift deteriorated into a fistfight at a business meeting. Boulis attacked and threatened to kill Kidan, according to Kidan, who went to court to get a restraining order against Boulis.
Immediately after the fight, Abramoff agreed with Kidan in e-mails that Boulis should be removed from SunCruz. In an e-mail to a SunCruz attorney, Abramoff said, "It is my belief that Gus [Boulis] and Adam [Kidan] need to resolve the issue of what Gus is owed and Gus needs to move on out of the company."
Boulis was killed two months later. He was a Greek immigrant whose rags-to-riches story became part of South Florida lore. He had launched SunCruz after making a fortune from Miami Subs. Known as a "cruise to nowhere" casino business, SunCruz sailed midsize cruise ships from ports around Florida, taking gamblers into international waters, beyond the reach of state laws.
Based near Fort Lauderdale in Dania Beach, the business was the bane of state officials, who thought Boulis flouted the law. In 1999, federal prosecutors charged Boulis with violating shipping laws by buying his vessels without being a U.S. citizen. Boulis agreed to pay a $1 million fine and sell his cruise line. Abramoff became an interested buyer and teamed with Kidan, a friend from the College Republicans.
In October 2000, a month after Abramoff and Kidan took charge of SunCruz and as relations with Boulis soured, Ney praised Kidan in Congress, saying "he will easily transform SunCruz from a questionable enterprise to an upstanding establishment."
Two months later, Kidan hired Anthony Moscatiello, whom he had described as a business mentor. Authorities have identified Moscatiello as an associate of the Gambino crime family who turned up in wiretaps of mob boss John Gotti in the 1980s.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.