Washington's real bandits just get away with the cash

November 25, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- If you've been following the news, you may think as I do that the most fascinating caper around the nation's capital in recent days does not involve politics, national security or a White House aide called "Scooter."

It involves a young woman famously known as the "cell phone bandit."

You've probably seen the grainy bank surveillance photos of the young and determined woman with sunglasses on top of her long dark hair and a cell phone tucked under her ear as she presents a shoebox with a note stuck on top that tells the teller to fill the box with cash.

She appeared to be an amateur to have decided to use four banks as her personal ATM.

Besides, bank robbers are like potato chip addicts: They usually can't stop with just one, and that rule apparently applies to the cell phone bandit.

After a flood of phone tips, Candice Martinez, a 19-year-old community college student, and her boyfriend, Dave Williams, also 19 and a former employee of Wachovia, the bank chain that was robbed, were arrested and confessed to the crimes, according to the FBI.

It turned out that Ms. Martinez was speaking with Mr. Williams, who was sitting outside in their getaway car, the FBI says.

Until then, I imagined this nicely dressed female had decided to steal money in the neighborhoods of powerful politicians for the same fabled reason that sharks don't eat lawyers or journalists: professional courtesy.

After all, the best friend law enforcement officials have ever had is the insatiable greed of serial offenders. What town is better known for people with sticky fingers who don't know when they have stolen enough?

Such appears to be the case with Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas, who pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to bribe public officials. The charge grew out of a long-running federal investigation of alleged attempts by Mr. Scanlon and his former partner, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, to defraud Indian tribes in a scheme that lavished trips, sports tickets and more than $830,000 in Abramoff-related campaign donations to nearly three dozen members of Congress.

Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon have been slithering around at the center of an investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican. Here's where we talk about real money: The cell phone bandit stole $48,000, according to the FBI. Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon were paid more than $80 million between 2001 and 2004 to help the gambling operations of six American Indian tribes.

In one astonishing escapade, even by Washington's jaded standards of palm greasing, Mr. Abramoff is accused of receiving big money to help a tribe reopen its casino shortly after taking money from rival tribes to close it.

He lobbied congressmen to urge the Interior Department on behalf of the Coushatta Indians in Louisiana to close a casino owned by the Tigua tribe in Texas, according to Senate documents, then shifted gears to charge the Tiguas $4.2 million to lobby Congress on their behalf to reopen the gambling operation.

That's sort of like learning that your defense attorney is secretly working for the people who are suing you. Lawyers can't do that, but nobody licenses lobbyists.

Mr. Scanlon could face up to five years in prison. He has agreed to cooperate in the investigation and to pay $19 million in restitution to the tribes, according to his attorney. Mr. Abramoff has been indicted in connection with an unrelated deal to purchase a cruise ship line at a cut rate, also with the help of friends in Congress.

But the real scandal of representing and wildly overcharging two opposing Indian clients is that laws may not have been violated. That's where the cell phone bandit went wrong. She was thinking too small for big-time Washington.

The lesson: Get a good education, kids, and you, too, might learn how to steal big without breaking laws. Just make friends with the right lawmakers.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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