Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of conspiracy and wire fraud stemming from his purchase five years ago of a Florida casino cruise line.
Abramoff's attorney, Neal Sonnett, entered the plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White. Abramoff, who lives in Maryland, did not appear after his lawyer convinced the court that it would have been too difficult for him to travel to Florida in the midst of Hurricane Katrina.
Abramoff is a central figure in a separate wide-ranging public corruption investigation involving the lobbyist's dealings with Congress and executive branch agencies.
In the Florida case, Abramoff and a business partner, Adam Kidan, were indicted this month in connection with their $147.5 million purchase of SunCruz Casinos five years ago. They are accused of supplying lenders with a counterfeit $23 million wire transfer to make it appear they had a financial stake in the deal. Two banks lent them $60 million for the purchase.
Kidan previously entered a plea of not guilty. Both men are free on bond. A hearing Tuesday could set a schedule for trial.
"I'm not going to summarize my defense strategy now," Sonnett told reporters outside the courtroom. "I can't summarize it. He committed no fraud. His case has been fairly stated in the civil cases, and that position is not going to change. Any defense theories or motions will be made in court."
In previous civil cases arising out of the SunCruz purchase, Abramoff has placed the blame for the phony wire transfer on his partner, Kidan. He has said in court filings that he believed Kidan had provided funds to the seller, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, who was later killed in a gangland-style shooting.
If convicted, Abramoff and Kidan face up to five years in prison on each of six charges and could be ordered to pay back $60 million.