Friday, November 25, 2005

Abramoff Scandal Threatens To Embroil GOP

2006 really does appear like it is going to be the Year of the Frogmarch. From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON -- A Justice Department investigation into possible influence-peddling by prominent Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is examining his dealings with four lawmakers, more than a dozen current and former congressional aides and two former Bush administration officials, according to lawyers and others involved in the case.

Investigators want to know whether Mr. Abramoff and his lobbying firm partners made illegal payoffs to lawmakers and aides in the form of campaign contributions, sports tickets, meals, travel and job offers, in exchange for helping their clients.

The Justice Department's probe is far broader than previously thought. Though it remains smaller than the congressional influence-peddling scandals of the 1970s, its focus on prominent Republicans raises the risk of serious embarrassment to the party before next year's congressional elections. Those involved in Mr. Abramoff's case say that the Justice Department investigation could take years to complete.

Prosecutors in the department's public integrity and fraud divisions -- separate units that report to the assistant attorney general for the criminal division -- are looking into Mr. Abramoff's interactions with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Bob Ney (R., Ohio), Rep. John Doolittle (R., Calif.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R., Mont.), according to several people close to the investigation. Messrs. DeLay and Ney have retained criminal defense lawyers. Spokespeople for Messrs. Doolittle and Burns said they haven't hired lawyers.


Prosecutors also are investigating at least 17 current and former congressional aides, about half of whom later took lobbying jobs with Mr. Abramoff, say lawyers and others involved in the case. Five of the former aides worked for Mr. DeLay, including Tony Rudy, Ed Buckham and Susan Hirschmann. The three were top aides to Mr. DeLay and are now Washington lobbyists. None returned calls or emails seeking comment.

Until this week, prosecutors seemed to be focused primarily on whether Mr. Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, had bilked a half-dozen Native American tribes out of $80 million over four years. But a plea agreement made public Monday between prosecutors and Mr. Scanlon, and interviews with individuals and lawyers close to the investigation, show that the Justice Department is pursuing a much broader influence-peddling and bribery case.

Mr. Scanlon pleaded guilty to a single bribery charge, admitting that he and Mr. Abramoff "engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts," according to his plea agreement.

Mr. Scanlon said that beginning in January 2000 he and Mr. Abramoff offered Mr. Ney, a close ally of the House Republican leadership, meals, sports tickets, political contributions and a golfing trip to Scotland in exchange for a series of "official acts" that helped Mr. Abramoff and his clients.

The plea agreement, which refers to Mr. Abramoff as "Lobbyist A" and Mr. Ney as "Representative #1," states that the congressman put two statements in the House's official record in 2000 supporting one of Mr. Abramoff's business ventures. In June 2002, the lawmaker attempted to help Mr. Abramoff by trying to approve legislation that would have helped one of Mr. Abramoff's Indian-tribe clients win a license to operate a casino, according to the plea. That effort failed, and Mr. Ney says that he was duped by Mr. Abramoff.

Stephen Braga, a lawyer for Mr. Scanlon, wouldn't comment on targets of the Justice Department investigation. But he said that the "investigation is much broader -- and Mr. Scanlon's cooperation in it will be much more extensive than the 'Lobbyist A' and 'Representative #1' facts recited in the plea agreement papers." A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.


It had been widely assumed in Washington that prosecutors were scrutinizing Mr. DeLay's dealings with Mr. Abramoff, who were longtime political allies. Mr. Abramoff took Mr. DeLay and several of his then aides on an expensive golf trip to Scotland several years ago. Mr. DeLay stepped down as House majority leader two month ago after he was indicted in Texas on unrelated campaign-finance charges.

Mr. Scanlon's guilty plea suggests that prosecutors may be setting a low threshold for bringing bribery charges. Mr. Scanlon pleaded guilty to bribing Mr. Ney by contributing just $4,000 to his campaign account in 2000 and an additional $10,000 to a separate Republican campaign fund. Prosecutors told Mr. Scanlon that if he made the contributions in exchange for some action or public statement by Mr. Ney, the donations amounted to bribery. That argument put pressure on Mr. Scanlon to plead guilty.

Despite the surge in donor-financed campaign spending, the Justice Department, at least in the past 30 years, hasn't charged a lobbyist with bribery based on political contributions. The Justice Department won't discuss its tactics, but Washington lobbyists are watching closely. If it were to use a similar standard for other prosecutions, it might be easier for the Justice Department to bring cases against Mr. Abramoff and his lobbying partners.

A Justice Department argument that political contributions are akin to bribery if the lobbyist is looking for something in return would force a big change in the way lobbyists ply their trade. Registered lobbyists have contributed $6 million in political donations in the first nine months of this nonelection year. Last year, lobbyists contributed $24 million to candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

In the 1970s, Congress was shaken by two influence-peddling scandals -- Koreagate, in which dozens of congressmen were found to have taken money from South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park and one congressman went to prison, and Abscam, in which one senator and four congressmen were convicted of accepting bribes from Federal Bureau of Investigation operatives posing as Arab sheiks.

This Scanlon plea really was a big deal and you know that the GOP is a lot more worried about the Abramoff scandals than they are the CIA leak case.

Which doesn't mean we should write off the significance of the Libby indictment or the continuing investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into possible criminal conduct by Preznit Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, or Vice Preznit Cheney.

But if, as Scanlon's lawyer says in the WSJ piece, the "investigation is much broader -- and Mr. Scanlon's cooperation in it will be much more extensive than the 'Lobbyist A' and 'Representative # 1' facts recited in the plea agreement papers," this case could quite literally destroy the GOP for the midtem elections.

As the Ruling Party in power, the GOP is already dealing with the fall-out generated by the economy, energy prices, Iraq war, deficit spending, Katrina aftermath, Delay/Frist/CIA leak scandals and cronyism/patronage within the administration.

If you add a dozen or more indictments against GOP members of Congress and administration officials in the Interior Department, you're really laying the groundwork for a "throw the bums out" November 2006 the likes of we haven't seen since November 1994.

Which is why you're already staryting to see the pushback from the GOP. Note the article in today's NY Times by Carl Hulse that seems to question the Justice Department's decision to prosecute pay-for-play campaign donations from lobbyists to politicians. The Hulse article quotes Republican Party advocate and former federal prosecutor Joe diGenova as saying "'The department has rarely charged campaign contribution cases'...'It would be a surprise that a contribution that has been lawfully reported' would lead to a criminal charge."

In other words, it doesn't matter if politicians have taken pay-for-play money, gifts, or favors from lobbyists in return for leigslative help so long as the money, gifts, and favors have been "lawfully reported."

Let's see if the American public as a whole buys that defense. Remember, according to a Harris poll published in the November 23, 2005 Wall Street Journal (and reported by Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post - hat tip to the Left Coaster), 64% of Americans already think the Bush administration "generally misleads the American public on current issues to achieve its own ends." Remember too that Americans actually hold the Congess and Senate in lower regard than the they do the preznit, and the preznit's approval ratings have fallen into the 30's in nearly every recent poll.

So it's not as if the Bush administration, the GOP leadership or the current Congress (both parties) have a lot of trust saved up with the American public.

If the Scanlon plea deal leads to indictments of more than a dozen Republicans including Tom Delay and Bob Ney, I think the GOP is going to have a very difficult time holding onto power after the 2006 midterm elections.

Thus, 2006 becomes the "Year of the Frogmarch."

Oh boy oh boy oh boy...

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