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Fresh corruption charges rock US government

part | 04.01.2006 20:41 | Analysis | Free Spaces | World

When it rains, it pours!

With climate chaos reeking havoc in the US with flood and wildfires, the US suffers another blow in the form of a massive bribery and corruption scandal that is implicating dozens of politicians.

Sadly, with all this going on, a previous unresolved corruption story might find itself squeezed out of the US media for the second time as the trial of the fattest cats of Enron begins in a couple of weeks time.

Watch the film - Enron 'the smartest guys in the room' at the weekly free cinema at rampART this thursday 5th 8pm

Enron was big. WorldCom even bigger. If it hadn't been for 911 and subsequent 'war on terror' then the fall out over the big corporate scandals of 2001 may have been bigger.

Now, will the Abramoff scandal blow the lid off democracy for sale in the USA or will it be quickly swept under the carpet and blamed on a few bad apples. Disgraced lobbyistis, Abramoff is now cooperating with the prosecutors, and many in Washington have reason to worry about what he is saying. Abramoff, who raised at least $120,000 for the Bush re-election campaign, pleaded guilty last Tuesday to conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud. He also agreed to help investigators trying to piece together the scope of his lobbying and fundraising activities. Watch this story - it is set to grow and grow!

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea in a U.S. corruption probe sent shock waves across Washington on Wednesday as top Republicans sought to avoid being tainted by the scandal and Democrats pressed the issue.

President George W. Bush and House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois were among Republicans who donated to charity campaign contributions they had received from Abramoff, while Democrats said the issue would loom large in November's congressional elections.

Others said the investigation would bring needed discipline to a lobbying industry that has enjoyed a freewheeling culture and record earnings.

"I think it's going to make both sides, lobbyists and legislators, ask more questions of each other," said Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a lobbying-industry trade group.

"A lot of the relationships around lobbying have been awfully loose and enforcement of existing laws has been fairly lax," he said.

Officials with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential business organisation, said they thought the scandal could encourage lobbying-reform legislation and spur lawmakers to work harder to pass substantive legislation this year.

Abramoff agreed on Tuesday to help Justice Department investigators probing whether members of Congress gave Abramoff and his clients favourable treatment in return for campaign contributions, sports tickets and other gifts.

Both Republicans and Democrats received campaign funds from Abramoff, but much of the attention has been focussed on former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.

Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana have returned donations from Abramoff and his clients.

Abramoff also was expected to plead guilty on Wednesday to wire-fraud charges for allegedly falsifying a loan in the purchase of a Florida casino cruise line.

Abramoff's cooperation makes the Justice Department's case much easier, a former prosecutor said.

"The real issue is intent -- what was the intent with which an official committed an act?" said Roma Theus, a Florida lawyer who prosecuted corruption cases with the Justice Department. "Testimony of an insider is critical, because it shows what the actual mind-set was, the thought process was."

Democrats said the Abramoff case, along with other ethics issues, will give them valuable ammunition as they seek to take back control of Congress in November.

"We've been talking for months about the culture of corruption in Washington," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "When the Republican leadership is completely consumed with defending itself from ethics scandals, then the work of the people does not get done."

Feinberg's Republican counterpart said that voters do not blame their local representatives if a member of the same party is found guilty of corruption.

"The bottom line from a political standpoint is I don't know of anyone who lost a race because of something another member did or didn't do," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti.

Ethics watchdog groups said Congress needs to tighten lobbying laws. One liberal group, the Campaign For America's Future, plans to run ads criticising Ney for his close relationship to Abramoff.

Ney said on Tuesday that he has never done anything illegal or improper and did not know the nature of Abramoff's activities when he dealt with him. DeLay has said he did nothing illegal.

How far will Abramoff scandal reach?

By Gail Russell Chaddock | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON – What worries Washington most about the corruption scandal with ex-superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at the epicenter is how far it will reach. Even those who never watched the Redskins play from his skybox, dined gratis at his Signatures restaurant, or teed off at St. Andrews in Scotland on his credit card are scrambling for cover.

While only one lawmaker was explicitly described in Mr. Abramoff's plea agreement - Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio - hundreds more accepted funds from Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, or his tribal clients. And that's the rub.

It's not a crime to accept contributions from lobbyists. It's a bribe only if there's evidence of an agreement to perform an official act in exchange. But the political damage can go further.

"Careers usually end when the indictment is brought, whether [the accused] are cleared or not. Very few survive an election, once an indictment has been brought," says Stanley Brand, a Washington defense attorney who advised House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the 1978 ABSCAM bribery case, an FBI sting operation that convicted five House members and a senator.

Many on Capitol Hill say the Abramoff affair could eclipse ABSCAM. With Abramoff's help, federal prosecutors say, they are unraveling an "extensive" corruption scheme. While prosecutors have not disclosed the number of lawmakers under investigation, speculation runs from a half-dozen to as many as 60. At least a dozen FBI field offices are now involved in the investigation.

"Government action is not for sale," said Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division at a news conference announcing the plea agreement this week. Prosecutors will follow the evidence "no matter where that trail leads," she added.

Several lawmakers are already under fire in their home districts for ties to Abramoff. Mr. Ney, the first lawmaker to disclose that he is under investigation by the Justice Department, had submitted two statements into the Congressional Record bearing on a casino deal in Florida involving Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon.

In return for this and other official acts, Mr. Ney and members of his staff got trips, including to Scotland for golf and Tampa, Fla., for the Super Bowl, tickets to sporting events, regular meals at Abramoff's upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions, according to information included in the plea agreement.

Ney, who chairs the House Administration Committee, says he regrets his association with Abramoff and had been duped.

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, indicted on Oct. 3 on unrelated charges of conspiracy and money laundering in Texas, and former staff, including Mr. Scanlon, are also in the mix of trips, contributions, and favors to Abramoff clients. Mr. DeLay accompanied Ney on a golf trip to Scotland financed by Abramoff.

After the Abramoff plea bargain, Speaker Dennis Hastert added his name to a growing list of lawmakers returning contributions from Abramoff and his clients.

In Montana, GOP Sen. Conrad Burns has already returned some $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff, but Democrats are using the Abramoff connection in ads to drive down his approval ratings. "Burns has mounted a pretty strong defense of himself, but according to a poll released last week, voters don't seem to be buying it," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.

"These are charges of corruption and bribery at the highest levels of government, and Montanans take it very seriously. What they want most is a senator focused on creating jobs in the state, fixing the healthcare crisis, and not worrying about whether he's going to jail over his friendship with Jack Abramoff," says Matt McKenna, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party.

Democrats say the Abramoff connection could play in at least three Senate races this year. "The Abramoff plea agreement is sending shudders through Republican congressional offices. It's one chapter in a larger story of how the Republicans have abused their majority status over the last decade," says Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But even Democrats risk being swept into the Abramoff morass. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota helped lead the investigation against Abramoff and Scanlon in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but also helped Abramoff's tribal clients. He has returned all contributions from these donors to avoid the appearance of ethical conflict.

"It's not enough to say that Congressman X got this contribution and then voted this way. You need to show a specific link or agreement," says Randall Eliason, a law professor at American University.

A look at the Abramoff scandal and where it goes next
By the Associated Press

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff is talking to prosecutors, and many in Washington have reason to worry about what he will say. Abramoff, a Republican donor and $100,000 fundraiser for President Bush, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud. He also agreed to help investigators trying to piece together the scope of his lobbying and fundraising activities.

Here, in question and answer form, is a look at the Abramoff case:

Q: Where does it go next?

A: Prosecutors want to know what Abramoff gave and what he got in return. The big question is did members of Congress or the Bush administration knowingly take official action that benefited Abramoff's clients in exchange for campaign contributions and gifts such as golf outings, trips abroad and use of Abramoff's luxury skybox? If so, they could face federal corruption charges.

Q: Any reason to think they did?

A: Though many lawmakers and Bush administration officials deny knowing Abramoff, lobbying invoices for 2001 alone show more than 1,000 contacts between his lobbying team and members of Congress and at least 200 with the Bush administration in Bush's first 10 months in office. Campaign reports show hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing from Abramoff, his associates and clients to politicians' campaigns and political action committees, often around the time lawmakers took action on behalf of Abramoff's clients.

A former Bush administration official already has been charged in the case. David Safavian, the government's former chief procurement official, a former Abramoff lobbying colleague and a former aide to Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon, is accused of hiding from investigators the fact that Abramoff was trying to get government business when Safavian, then a General Services Administration official, went on a golf trip with him to Scotland in 2002.

Q: How many politicians are involved?

A: The corruption investigation is believed to be focusing on as many as 20 members of Congress and aides, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican.

The scandal has prompted many politicians to get rid of Abramoff-related campaign donations. Bush and DeLay joined those turning the money over to charities.

Q: What did Abramoff's clients get?

A: In the view of some, not much.

Several Indian tribes who hired Abramoff accuse him and a lobbying partner of overbilling them by tens of millions of dollars and achieving little in Washington for the money. But congressional records and Abramoff billing invoices show Abramoff won federal money for one client, the Northern Mariana Islands, and lined up lawmakers — including DeLay — to fight off attempts to impose the minimum wage and other U.S. labor laws on the territory's clothing factories. Abramoff and his lobbying colleagues also recruited members of Congress to help tribal clients get federal funding and try to block rival tribes from opening casinos, among other things.

Q: Would Abramoff's clients have gotten help from lawmakers without the campaign contributions, skybox visits, trips and other largesse?

A: Lawmakers say yes, and that the timing of political donations and official actions many of them took was just coincidence. Investigators will question Abramoff, his former lobbying colleagues, congressional aides and members of Congress and look for any incriminating e-mails and other documents to see whether that's true.

Q: Is there any reason the average American should care about any of this? Isn't Washington full of crooks anyway?

A: The Abramoff scandal is shaping up to be one of the biggest corruption cases ever in Washington, sweeping in Republicans and Democrats alike. Some lawmakers are already calling for tougher ethics rules, including having privately sponsored trips vetted by ethics committees before lawmakers take them.

Campaign watchdogs say that if nothing else, the scandal will shine a bright light on many politicians' business-as-usual attitude toward taking campaign money from those with business before them, and they hope it prompts lawmakers to think twice before they do it — or not do it at all.