Lobbyist pleads guilty to fraud

Abramoff asks forgiveness, agrees to aid congressional influence-peddling probe


WASHINGTON -- Asking forgiveness from "the Almighty and from those I have wronged," Jack Abramoff, once considered the most powerful lobbyist on Capitol Hill, pleaded guilty yesterday to a scheme of fraud and tax evasion that could send him to prison for 11 years.

Abramoff now becomes a prospective witness for the prosecution in a continuing influence-peddling probe of Congress that has mushroomed into a major corruption scandal. The investigation has already ensnared one member of Congress, and Abramoff's guilty plea gives the probe a new impetus.

The plea deal includes a requirement that Abramoff cooperate truthfully in the investigation of his actions over a decade, a process that could significantly reduce his prison time. Abramoff also must make restitution of $25 million and pay a little more than $1.7 million in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Speaking softly, Abramoff, 46, responded with simple "yes" or "no" answers as he entered the guilty pleas in a 50-minute session before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. Abramoff wore a rumpled black suit and appeared pale as he stood beside his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, in the packed courtroom.

At the end of the court session, Abramoff stood and, with the judge's permission, read from a folded piece of paper. "I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I have wronged or caused to suffer," he said. "Words will not ever be able to express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused."

His sentence will be set at a later date and will depend on his continued cooperation, according to Mary K. Butler, the Justice Department's lead prosecutor in the case. The counts of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion carry a maximum prison term of 30 years. But federal sentencing guidelines call for only nine to 11 years, officials said.

The agreement marks a significant turn in an investigation that the FBI launched in March 2004. Justice Department officials said the fallen Republican deal-maker had already begun sharing information and documents with them.

Officials declined to discuss any additional charges, but documents released yesterday indicate prosecutors are focusing on benefits provided by Abramoff and his colleagues to members of Congress, their relatives, and current and former congressional staffers and their relatives.

The charging document said Abramoff "controlled" a Silver Spring-based firm, Grassroots Interactive, and used it in May 2003 to fraudulently bill clients for bogus services and keep the money. Maryland records show that the company was founded in May 2003 by Edward B. Miller shortly before he joined Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration and that Miller was its sole owner for several months before selling it.

Ehrlich has stood by Miller, now a deputy chief of staff, and said there is "nothing there" regarding his aide's link to Abramoff.

"The corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive, and we will continue to follow it wherever it leads," said Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division. "This case is very active and ongoing. We are going to expend the resources that are necessary to make sure that people know that government is not for sale."

Abramoff has agreed to plead guilty later this week to conspiracy and wire fraud charges in a separate case in Florida relating to the purchase of a fleet of casino gambling boats, according to Neil Sonnett, his attorney in that case. The sentences in the two cases are expected to be served concurrently.

Under yesterday's plea agreement, which mirrors charges brought earlier against one of his former partners, Michael Scanlon, Abramoff admitted to engaging in a conspiracy to defraud Indian tribes of more than $20 million through a secret kickback arrangement. Scanlon has already entered a guilty plea to a parallel conspiracy charge and has also promised to cooperate in the continuing probe. Abramoff also admitted to defrauding his former law and lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, by having clients direct payments to entities he controlled and bypassing the law firm.

According to court documents, Abramoff and Scanlon hid millions of dollars in fees by persuading Indian tribe clients with casino interests to pay consulting fees to companies and a nonprofit corporation that Abramoff had set up. The two then shared the excess profits "pursuant to their secret agreement." Abramoff, the documents charge, knew that the same services could have been provided by others at a far lower price.

But Abramoff, according to the charges, lied to the tribes, telling them that he was working for nothing and, in some cases, denying any connection to the companies receiving the payments.

Though court documents refer only to "Representative One," the documents describe specific actions taken by Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of a key House committee.

Abramoff admitted to providing things of value to Ney and members of his staff, including "a lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world famous courses, tickets to sporting events and other entertainment." In return, the documents state, Scanlon and Abramoff got Ney's agreement to support specific legislation and favor an Abramoff client seeking a contract to provide wireless phone services to the U.S. House.

Ney, whose actions also had been cited in the Scanlon case, issued a brief statement denying that he had done anything wrong.

"Congressman Ney has never done anything illegal or improper and the allegations in this plea agreement do not change this fact," said Ney's spokesman, Brian J. Walsh.

Fisher, citing the items Abramoff provided to Ney and his staff in return for specific actions, said, "That's not lobbying, that's a crime."

Walter F. Roche Jr. and Richard B. Schmitt write for the Los Angeles Times.

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