Lobbyist Jack Abramoff sows panic through Washington.
Jack Abramoff was a ferocious multitasker. The Washington lobbyist regularly talked to one person on the phone while e-mailing another. An acquaintance joked to me that Abramoff could send e-mail and swing a golf club at the same time. Today Abramoff pleaded guilty to a different sort of multitasking: defrauding clients while simultaneously illegally enticing others, including members of Congress, to act on behalf of the clients he was bilking.
Abramoff has reportedly agreed to testify against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients. Over the past several weeks, the Justice Department has been debriefing him and combing through thousands of e-mails he kept (he was also a pack rat) from his most productive and illegal period. Investigators are reportedly focusing on as many as 20 lawmakers and aides. Like the Enron scandal and others, this one is likely to affect some who didn't do anything illegal but were associated with the discredited and vulgar lobbyist.
Here is a list of the figures most likely to face trouble, political or legal, as a result of Abramoff cutting a deal with the feds and singing like a Bee Gee.
Rep. Tom DeLay—The former House majority leader once toasted Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends." DeLay said that on a 1997 trip they took to the Northern Mariana Islands, where Abramoff represented the government in its effort to prevent U.S. minimum-wage laws from being imposed on the territory. Criminal investigators are looking into whether Abramoff paid for trips DeLay may have taken in exchange for favors for his clients. They're also looking into suspiciously timed campaign donations.
Making matters worse for DeLay, his former press secretary Mike Scanlon, who was Abramoff's closest partner, has also pleaded guilty and is also cooperating with the feds. Tony Rudy and Ed Buckham, two former senior DeLay aides, are also being investigated. New disclosures by Abramoff could hurt DeLay's chances in a close congressional race already complicated by his indictment in Austin, Texas, on campaign-finance violations. On Jan. 3, the prosecutor in the Texas case subpoenaed records from Abramoff and his associates, which could merge the two (until now separate) DeLay scandals.
Rep. Robert Ney—"If I were in Bob Ney's office I would be heading for the exits," e-mailed one top Republican staffer on Capitol Hill after Abramoff's plea agreement was announced. Ney, who has already been subpoenaed, traveled on a Jack-backed golf trip to Scotland. He previously had proposed legislation to help a tribe that then donated to his campaign and entered comments in the Congressional Record against a man standing in the way of an Abramoff project. The congressman has denied wrongdoing, saying Abramoff and his partner duped him in both cases. Ney's former aide Neil Volz, whom Abramoff hired, is also under investigation. The betting in Washington is that Ney will get indicted—he is believed to be the "Representative #1" described in court papers filed today. "They didn't make a deal with Abramoff to nab another lobbyist," says one veteran Republican. "They did it to get a member of Congress."
Rep. John Dolittle—The California congressman's wife, Julie, did fund-raising work for Abramoff, and her company's records have been subpoenaed by the grand jury investigating Abramoff. Doolittle was one of many lawmakers who signed a letter opposing plans to build a casino in Louisiana that could threaten gambling operations run by a tribe Abramoff represented. A former Doolittle staffer named Kevin Ring also went to work for Abramoff.
Ralph Reed—The former executive director of the Christian Coalition is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia and sprinting away from Abramoff. Reed received millions from Jack and his partner in order to wage "grass-roots" anti-gambling campaigns. The problem for Reed is that his work against the evil money-rollers was paid for by other gambling interests eager to get rid their competition. Reed said he didn't know he was being paid by gambling interests. E-mails suggest that he did.
Sen. Conrad Burns—The chairman of the House Interior appropriations subcommittee, Burns took legislative action favorable to Abramoff's clients in the Northern Mariana Islands around the time he took $12,000 in donations from Abramoff and a key garment-company executive in the islands. In addition, two Burns staffers accepted a trip arranged by Abramoff to attend the Super Bowl in Florida. His chief of staff, Will Brooke, and state director, Shawn Vasell, went to work for Abramoff. Burns, who has returned $150,000 in donations, recently said to a local Montana television station, "This Abramoff guy is a bad guy. I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again. I wish he'd never been born." Abramoff now has a chance to repay the kind wishes.
Sen. Byron Dorgan—The only Democrat so far under suspicion, the North Dakota senator has returned $67,000 in response to Associated Press reports that he collected Indian money around the time he took actions favorable to those Abramoff clients. Dorgan is the top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating Abramoff's tribal lobbying and says he supported the Indian programs before the donations were made.
Grover Norquist—The president of Americans for Tax Reform and longtime Abramoff friend, Norquist donated $1 million in ATR funds to an anti-lottery and gaming coalition, a portion of which supported Ralph Reed's phony grass-roots organizing for Abramoff. Norquist also arranged White House meetings for Abramoff's tribal client. Congressional investigators suspect that Norquist, whose organization receives money from Indian tribes Abramoff represented, may have been laundering funds for Abramoff. But Norquist was never interviewed or called to testify before Sen. John McCain's Indian affairs committee. Norquist has not yet talked to investigators in the Abramoff probe and says the White House meeting with Indian leaders was unconnected—merely a reward for tribes that had passed resolutions supporting the president's policies.
David Safavian—The Bush administration's former chief procurement official has already been charged with obstruction and making false statements to federal investigators and Senate aides investigating Abramoff. He allegedly claimed Abramoff had no business before GSA when he accompanied the lobbyist on a lavish golf trip to Scotland, along with Ney. Prosecutors say Safavian was actively helping Abramoff obtain a lease on the Old Post Office building for one of his Indian tribal clients and leasing other government property for the private school he founded. Now that Jack is talking, Safavian will no longer have to wonder who the government's chief witness against him will be.
Rep. Denny Hastert—The House speaker is not personally threatened by the Abramoff plea, but his Republican majority may be. If nothing else, the scandal may shrink the margin he has to work with after the 2006 election. Democrats have been trying to overcome the fact that congressional races tend to be about local issues by labeling the GOP the party of corruption. Indictments of Republican lawmakers will help. As Republicans find themselves in a position of having to defend possibly legal but clearly sleazy relationships with criminal lobbyists, it may give Democrats a chance to overcome the advantages of incumbency.