What began last year as a seemingly routine inquiry into an allegedly crooked lobbyist has evolved into a far-reaching investigation with all the intrigue and political octane of a full-blown Washington scandal - one that could well recast the relationship between money and influence on Capitol Hill, according to political analysts and scholars.
The three-pronged investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and more than $80 million in payments he and associates took from Indian tribes has already tarnished two members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Dozens of others are under scrutiny for promoting the causes of Abramoff's clients while accepting suspiciously timed political contributions linked to the once-mighty lobbyist.
Still more lawmakers have begun returning Abramoff-related contributions or donating them to charity - a practice that could become its own financial torrent if it catches on, given that Abramoff and his associates and clients contributed money to perhaps a third of Washington's 535 members of Congress in the past four years. The lobbyist's reach is already evident in Maryland. Edward B. Miller, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has been cooperating with a federal grand jury exploring the role that a company he founded and later sold might have played in collecting millions of dollars from Abramoff clients and diverting it to other interests.
But Washington insiders say the most consequential outcome of the Abramoff affair could be on the horizon, if the investigation continues to suggest that cozy, often questionable relationships between money and lawmaking have become the standard in Washington, rather than the exception. Many expect efforts to tighten federal lobbying regulations to soon gain the steam they often lacked the past few years, perhaps by further restricting gifts and travel reimbursements or by imposing tougher disclosure and reporting requirements.
Near `tipping point'
"The scale and cynicism of the operation puts it in a category of its own," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who said he believes that the fallout from the Abramoff scandal will rewrite Washington's rules governing the financial dealings and disclosure for lobbyists.
"At some point you hit a sort of tipping point, where the scandal becomes so broad, with so many people involved, that it can no longer be tagged as an aberration and can no longer be disregarded," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "I think we are very near that point now."
The ultimate scope of the investigations that Abramoff's dealings have spawned is uncertain, with some observers suspecting that the scandal is contained to a small group of lawmakers and lobbyists and the relatively obscure realm of Indian gaming, while others see much broader implications. The Justice Department is reportedly employing more than three dozen people to investigate members of Congress and their aides who have done business with Abramoff, and two investigations by congressional committees are under way.
Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, is under scrutiny for apparently supporting Abramoff's purchase of a Florida gambling-boat company in 2000, a transaction that led to the lobbyist's indictment in August on charges of wire fraud and conspiring to defraud lenders. DeLay accepted overseas trips financed by Abramoff clients, and evidence from the Senate investigations suggests he pressured the lobbyist to raise money for him.
Combined with unrelated corruption cases, such as Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation after pleading guilty to bribery and tax evasion charges, the scandal has created an environment for reform, Noble said. "If you assume this is all going on, that people are buying influence with gifts and trips and even bribes, then what we're talking about is something that really undermines the very fabric of representative democracy," he said. "It's unfortunate, because not all lawmakers are like that, not all lobbyists are like that. But what is the public going to believe?"
From the early days of the Bush administration, Abramoff, a Republican, developed a reputation for his prowess and connections lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes with gambling operations. Sen. John McCain, who as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is leading one of the investigations into Abramoff's dealings, called him a "vainglorious and once-powerful rainmaker" during one of the committee's recent hearings.
In early 2004, The Washington Post revealed that Abramoff and an associate, public relations specialist and former DeLay staffer Michael Scanlon, had collected more than $45 million in payments from Indian tribe clients despite a lull in Indian-related issues being debated in Congress.