Corruption probe swells in Congress, lawyers say
Justice Department prosecutors investigating former lobbyist Jack Abramoff are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Justice Department prosecutors investigating former lobbyist Jack Abramoff are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive-branch agencies, lawyers involved in the case said.
Prosecutors have told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least a half-dozen members of Congress, said lawyers and others close to the probe. The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, lawyers and others said.
Abramoff previously worked for the Seattle-based law and lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas from 1994 to 2000. The firm has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican now facing separate campaign-finance charges in his home state, is one of the members under scrutiny, the sources said. Others include Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and several other members of Congress involved with Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest.
Prosecutions and plea deals have become more likely, the lawyers said, now that Abramoff's former partner — public-relations executive Michael Scanlon — has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and to testify about gifts that he and his fellow lobbyists showered on lawmakers, allegedly in exchange for official favors.
An attorney for DeLay, whose wife worked for a lobbying firm that received client referrals from Abramoff, said there was no connection between her work and congressional business.
A spokesman for Doolittle, whose wife received payments from Abramoff's lobbying firm, also said there was no connection with her husband's position.
Burns' office has said his actions were consistent with his support for improving conditions for Indian tribes.
Ney is the congressman whose name has surfaced most prominently. His spokesman and attorney have said for weeks that Ney has not been told he is a target of the inquiry, even while acknowledging that his office has received a grand-jury subpoena and that his activities were mentioned in Scanlon's plea agreement.
However, the sources said that during the third week of October prosecutors told Ney and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, that they were preparing a bribery case based in part on activities that occurred in October 2000.
Abramoff and another business partner, Adam Kidan, also were told they are targets in that case, the sources said.
The attorneys of Abramoff and Kidan did not return calls seeking comment.
The five-year statute of limitations for filing charges based on those events expired last month; prosecutors received a waiver of the deadline from Ney, Volz, Abramoff and Kidan, the sources said. Prosecutors often obtain such waivers by giving the targets a choice of being indicted right away or granting more time to see if information might surface that exonerates them.
Ney's attorney, Mark Tuohey, did not return calls seeking comment on the waiver. Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the office had no comment, as did a lawyer for Volz.
The events in 2000 that interest investigators are connected to the purchase by Abramoff and Kidan of SunCruz Casinos, owner of a fleet of Florida gambling boats.
Ney twice placed comments in the Congressional Record about SunCruz, first criticizing its former owner when Abramoff and Kidan were in difficult purchase negotiations, then, in October, praising Kidan's new management. Abramoff and Kidan are facing trial in January on charges they defrauded lenders in their purchase of the casino boats.
The statute of limitations also may soon run out on a 2001 Super Bowl trip sponsored by SunCruz that sources said investigators have reviewed.
The Washington Post has reported that aides to Burns and DeLay were ferried to Tampa, Fla., on a SunCruz corporate jet arranged by Abramoff. Ney and his sons were invited to the 2001 Super Bowl outing, former Abramoff associates said, but did not go.
The Capitol Hill aides were treated to the game and a night of gambling on a SunCruz ship. They were offered $500 in gambling chips, sources said.
The Post has reported that Burns, who received $137,000 in contributions from Abramoff lobbyists and their tribal clients, obtained a controversial $3 million school-construction grant for one of Abramoff's wealthy tribal clients after pressuring the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Investigators also are gathering information about Abramoff's hiring of several congressional wives, sources said, as well as his referral of clients to Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying and consulting firm run by former senior aides to DeLay. Financial-disclosure forms show that the firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002.
Former Abramoff lobbying associates have said Abramoff shared some of his high-paying clients with the group, including Malaysian interests, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe and online gambling firms. Federal investigators have questioned some former Abramoff associates about whether those referrals were related to Christine DeLay's employment, sources said.
Alexander Strategy Group is run by former DeLay senior staffers Edwin Buckham and Tony Rudy. Rudy served as DeLay's deputy chief of staff until 2001, when he took a job with Abramoff, and later moved on to join Buckham.
Investigators are looking into whether Rudy aided Abramoff's lobbying clients while he was working on Capitol Hill, the sources said, and are reviewing payments from Abramoff clients and associates to Liberty Consulting, a political firm founded by Rudy's wife, Lisa.
The Post reported last month that Rudy, while on DeLay's staff, helped scuttle a bill opposed by eLottery, an Abramoff client, and that Abramoff had eLottery pay a foundation to hire Liberty Consulting.
Richard Cullen, an attorney for the DeLays, said Christine DeLay was hired by Buckham, an old family friend, to determine the favorite charity of every member of Congress. She was paid $3,200 to $3,400 a month for three years, or about $115,000 total, he said.
"It wasn't like she did this 9 to 5, but it was an ongoing project," Cullen said, noting her work was commensurate with the project.
Rudy and Buckham and their attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.
Abramoff's connections to Doolittle also are of interest to investigators, sources said. Doolittle's former chief of staff, Kevin Ring, went to work with Abramoff. Doolittle's wife, Julie, owned a consulting firm that was hired by Abramoff and his firm, Greenberg Traurig, to do fundraising for a charity he founded.
Two sources said Ring, while working for Abramoff, was an intermediary in the hiring of Julie Doolittle's firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, which last year received a subpoena from the grand jury investigating Abramoff.
Julie Doolittle's attorney, William Stauffer Jr., said Sierra Dominion Financial was hired by Greenberg Traurig to provide "event planning, marketing and related services, as requested by Mr. Abramoff" for his Capital Athletic Foundation and his Signatures restaurant. Sierra Dominion received a monthly retainer from Greenberg Traurig from January 2003 until February 2004, at a similar rate paid by other Sierra Dominion clients, Stauffer said.
Abramoff frequently used the athletic foundation as a pass-through organization to run lobbying efforts and to pay for expenses, records show. Julie Doolittle was hired to put on a fundraiser for the foundation at the International Spy Museum, but the event was canceled because it had been scheduled to take place as the Iraq war was commencing, Stauffer said.
"Sierra Dominion primarily performed public relations and other event-planning services for the Spy Museum event," Stauffer said in an e-mail. "This included responding to all individuals calling the Capital Athletic Foundation concerning the Spy Museum event, identifying (and contacting) possible attendees for the event, and assisting in fundraising strategy and letters."
Doolittle's office denied any connection between the firm's work and official acts.
"In no way did Sierra Dominion's business-services work for Greenberg Traurig have any relationship to Congressman Doolittle's official duties as a member of the House of Representatives," Doolittle spokeswoman Laura Blackmann said. "Congressman Doolittle has never received a subpoena regarding this matter, nor has he ever been contacted by the Justice Department to provide information or be questioned."
The Justice Department investigation also is looking into Abramoff's influence among executive-branch officials. Sources said prosecutors are continuing to seek information about Abramoff's dealings with then-Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, including a job offer from the lobbyist at a time when he was seeking department actions on behalf of his tribal clients.
The former top procurement official in the Bush administration, David Safavian, already has been charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation.
Safavian, who traveled to Scotland with Ney on a golf outing arranged by Abramoff, is accused of concealing from federal investigators that Abramoff was seeking to do business with the General Services Administration (GSA) at the time of the golf trip. Safavian was then GSA chief of staff.
Abramoff's ties to Seattle were provided by Seattle Times staff.
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