Abramoff working on plea deal

December 31, 2005|By WALTER F. ROCHE JR. | WALTER F. ROCHE JR.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers met with a federal judge yesterday to discuss a wire fraud case against Jack Abramoff amid indications that a plea agreement could be reached next week in two federal investigations of the once-powerful lobbyist.

Under such an agreement, Abramoff would presumably offer evidence about favors he provided some members of Congress and their aides.

Attorneys for Abramoff and federal prosecutors discussed the status of the wire fraud case with U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck in Miami, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta. Another meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, said the spokeswoman, Yovanny Lopez.

Trial is set to begin Jan. 9, and, according to sources familiar with the case, the judge has set Tuesday as the deadline for completing any plea deal. The sources requested anonymity when discussing the legal negotiations.

Abramoff, who wielded widespread influence in Congress, is also under investigation by a federal grand jury in Washington on charges that he and his associates bilked Indian tribes and other clients of millions of dollars in fees. The plea-bargaining talks are believed to encompass both cases.

The lobbyist had close ties to Republican congressional leaders and forged strong alliances with conservative causes. The investigation of Abramoff's lobbying efforts in Washington has stirred national attention, and his potential testimony as a cooperating federal witness in a plea deal has caused growing concern among some political leaders about potential legal problems for members of Congress in the investigation.

A spokesman for Abramoff's Washington lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment after yesterday's conference in Miami. Neal R. Sonnett, Abramoff's Florida lawyer, confirmed that the meeting took place but refused to comment on the status of plea negotiations.

Strong signals that Abramoff was about to cut a deal with prosecutors came after a series of recent developments in investigations that have stretched from Washington to the Northern Marianna islands in the Pacific Ocean.

On Nov. 21, under an agreement with prosecutors, Michael Scanlon, Abramoff's former lobbying partner, entered a guilty plea to a count of conspiracy to commit bribery and mail and wire fraud. His sentencing has been delayed pending his cooperation in the investigation.

In details disclosed at the time of his guilty plea, Scanlon said that he and Abramoff had a secret agreement under which they split the millions of dollars in profits Scanlon collected from Indian tribes seeking favorable federal action on casino gambling operations. As part of his plea agreement, Scanlon agreed to make restitution of $19.6 million.

This month Adam R. Kidan, a former Abramoff partner in a Florida casino deal, entered a guilty plea to fraud and conspiracy charges. Abramoff was charged in the same case with defrauding lenders of $60 million by faking a $23 million wire transfer in order to get financing to buy a fleet of floating casinos. He has entered a not guilty plea. That is the case scheduled to go to trial in early January.

Like Scanlon, Kidan said he had reached an agreement with federal prosecutors to cooperate in the probe.

Last week, more details about Abramoff's lobbying activities were disclosed in a report from Guam's public auditor. That audit detailed how Abramoff was secretly paid with Guam Superior Court funds to lobby against a bill then pending in Congress to reorganize the island territory's judicial system.

The auditor concluded that the payments totaling $324,000 were made in $9,000 increments by a court administrator in an apparent attempt to circumvent bidding requirements.

The Guam Superior Court was just one of Abramoff's Pacific island clients. He also collected millions in fees from Saipan garment makers and the Northern Marianas government to fight legislation to give thousands of workers a higher minimum wage.

The spreading investigation has snared members of Congress who were Abramoff's guests in luxury seats at professional sporting events and on junkets to the Pacific islands and Scottish golf courses.

Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, acknowledged recently that he had been subpoenaed as part of the Abramoff investigation. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with the lobbyist.

Other members of Congress recently have returned thousands of dollars in campaign contributions linked to Abramoff or his clients.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who is facing unrelated criminal charges leveled by a prosecutor in his home state, also has come under scrutiny for his once-close relationship with Abramoff.

Walter F. Roche Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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