Prominent lawmakers possibly linked to Abramoff case


WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has signaled for the first time in recent weeks that prominent members of Congress could be swept up in the corruption investigation of Jack Abramoff, the former Republican super-lobbyist who diverted some of his tens of millions of dollars in fees to provide lavish travel, meals and campaign contributions to the lawmakers whose help he needed most.

The investigation by a federal grand jury, which began more than a year ago, has created alarm on Capitol Hill, especially with the announcement Friday of criminal charges against Michael Scanlon, Abramoff's former lobbying partner and a former top House aide to Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas.

The charges against Scanlon identified no lawmakers by name, but a summary of the case released by the Justice Department accused him of being part of a broad conspiracy to provide "things of value, including money, meals, trips and entertainment to federal public officials in return for agreements to perform official acts" - an attempt at bribery, in other words, or something close to it.

Abramoff, who is under indictment in a separate bank fraud case in Florida, has not been charged by the federal grand jury here. But Scanlon's lawyer says he has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation, suggesting that Abramoff's day in court in Washington is only a matter of time.

Scholars who specialize in the history and operations of Congress say that given the brazenness of Abramoff's lobbying efforts, as measured by the huge fees he charged clients and the extravagant gifts he showered on friends on Capitol Hill, almost all of them Republicans, the investigation could end up costing several lawmakers their careers, if not their freedom.

The investigation threatens to ensnarl many outside Congress as well, including Interior Department officials and others in the Bush administration who were courted by Abramoff on behalf of the American Indian tribe casinos that were his most lucrative clients.

The inquiry has already reached into the White House; a White House budget official, David H. Safavian, resigned days before his arrest in September on charges of lying to investigators about his business ties to Abramoff, a former lobbying partner.

"I think this has the potential to be the biggest scandal in Congress in over a century," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional specialist at the Brookings Institution. "I've been around Washington for 35 years, watching Congress, and I've never seen anything approaching Abramoff for cynicism and chutzpah in proposing quid pro quos to members of Congress."

Even by the gold-plated standards of Washington lobbying firms, the fees paid to Abramoff were extraordinary. A former president of the College Republicans who turned to lobbying after a short-lived career as a B-movie producer, Abramoff, with his lobbying team, collected more than $80 million from the Indian tribes and their gambling operations. He was known by lobbying rivals as "Casino Jack."

So far, one member of Congress, Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, has acknowledged receiving a subpoena from the grand jury investigating Abramoff. Another, Rep. John T. Doolittle, a California Republican, has acknowledged that his wife, who helped Abramoff organize fundraisers, was subpoenaed.

The Justice Department signaled last month that DeLay had come under scrutiny in the investigation, over a trip that Abramoff arranged for DeLay and his wife to Britain in 2000 that included rounds of golf at the fabled course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

The department revealed its interest in DeLay, who is under indictment in Texas in an unrelated investigation involving violations of state election laws, in an extraordinary request to the British government that police there interview former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about the circumstances of a meeting in London with DeLay during the trip five years ago.

London newspapers quoted a document prepared by the British Home Office that outlined the Justice Department's investigation and said that "it is alleged that Abramoff arranged for his clients to pay for the trips to the U.K. on the basis that congressman DeLay would support favorable legislation."

The situation could be serious for Ney, a five-term lawmaker whose position as chairman of the House Administration Committee gives him power over the operations of the Capitol building and allows him to divide up congressional perks like office space and parking.

Ney was not identified by name in the documents filed against Scanlon on Friday. But the Ohio lawmaker's lawyers acknowledged that Ney was the lawmaker identified as "Representative No. 1" in the Justice Department papers, which charged Scanlon with conspiring to provide "Representative No. 1" with a golfing trip to Scotland, meals at Abramoff's Washington restaurant and campaign contributions.

Ney took part in a golf trip to Scotland in 2002 with Abramoff, where they played at St. Andrews, as DeLay had done two years earlier. Documents and testimony to Congress showed that Abramoff had asked an Indian tribe in Texas to sponsor the trip and that Ney was then asked for his help in trying to reopen a casino owned by the tribe that had been shuttered by state officials.

Ney was also a regular at Signatures, the expensive Washington restaurant that Abramoff owned and used to entertain clients, colleagues and lawmakers.

Former Signatures employees have said that Ney frequently ate and drank at the restaurant without paying. Ney has acknowledged the gifts but said they were within limits set by congressional ethics rules.

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