Monday, December 05, 2005

Follow the Money

Scandal May Recast Rules On Lobbying

Abramoff Investigation Touches Many In Congress
December 5, 2005

By ROBERT LITTLE, Baltimore Sun

What began last year as a seemingly routine inquiry into an allegedly crooked lobbyist has evolved into an investigation that could recast the relationship between money and influence on Capitol Hill, according to political analysts and scholars.

The three-pronged investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and more than $80 million in payments he and associates took from Indian tribes has tarnished two members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Dozens of others are under scrutiny for promoting the causes of Abramoff's clients while accepting suspiciously timed political contributions linked to the once-mighty lobbyist.

Still more lawmakers have begun returning Abramoff-related contributions or donating them to charity - a practice that could become its own financial torrent if it catches on, because Abramoff and his associates and clients contributed money to perhaps one-third of the 435 members of the House of Representatives over the past four years.

But Washington insiders say the most consequential outcome of the Abramoff affair could be on the horizon, if the investigation continues to suggest that cozy, often questionable relationships between money and lawmaking have become the standard in Washington, rather than the exception. Many expect efforts to tighten federal lobbying regulations to gain momentum they've lacked in recent years, perhaps by further restricting gifts and travel reimbursements or by imposing tougher disclosure and reporting requirements.

"The scale and cynicism of the operation puts it in a category of its own," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional specialist and senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, who believes the fallout from the Abramoff scandal will rewrite Washington's rules governing the financial dealings and disclosure for lobbyists.

"At some point you hit a sort of tipping point, where the scandal becomes so broad, with so many people involved, that it can no longer be tagged as an aberration and can no longer be disregarded," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

"I think we are very near that point now."

The ultimate scope of the investigations that Abramoff's dealings have spawned is uncertain, with some observers suspecting the scandal is limited to a few lawmakers and lobbyists and the relatively obscure realm of Indian gaming, while others see much broader implications. The Justice Department reportedly is employing more than three dozen people to investigate members of congress and their aides who have done business with Abramoff, and two investigations by congressional committees are underway.

U.S. Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio, is under scrutiny for apparently supporting Abramoff's purchase of a Florida gambling-boat company in 2000, a transaction that led to the lobbyist's indictment in August on charges of wire fraud and conspiring to defraud lenders. DeLay accepted overseas trips financed by Abramoff clients, and evidence from the Senate investigations suggests he pressured the lobbyist to raise money for him.

Combined with unrelated corruption cases in Washington - California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation last week after pleading guilty to bribery and tax evasion charges, for instance - the scandal has created a ripe environment for legislative reform, Noble said.

"If you assume this is all going on, that people are buying influence with gifts and trips and even bribes, then what we're talking about is something that really undermines the very fabric of representative democracy," said Noble.

"It's unfortunate, because not all lawmakers are like that, not all lobbyists are like that. But what is the public going to believe?"

From the early days of the Bush administration, Abramoff, an avowed Republican, developed a reputation for his prowess and connections lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes with gambling operations. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is leading one of the investigations into Abramoff's dealings, called him a "vainglorious and once-powerful rainmaker" during one of the committee's recent hearings.

In early 2004 a series of stories in The Washington Post revealed that Abramoff and an associate, public relations specialist and former DeLay staffer Michael Scanlon, had collected more than $45 million in payments from Indian tribe clients despite a lull in Indian-related issues being debated in Congress.

The allegations against Abramoff have expanded to include claims of steering donations to favored lawmakers or to his own nonprofit enterprises. Also under review is Abramoff's role in the so-called K Street Project undertaken by GOP leaders to persuade Washington lobbying companies to hire Republicans - some people say to offset the lingering Clinton-era imbalance, others say to monopolize Washington's political infrastructure.

A friend and longtime associate of Republican activist Grover Norquist, the project's most outspoken proponent, Abramoff is being investigated for reportedly arranging private-sector employment in his lobbying enterprise for government workers who helped his clients.Scanlon, 35, pleaded guilty last month in U.S. District Court in Washington to conspiring to defraud four Indian tribes, and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

"We have uncovered almost unbelievable things here," said U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, the top Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee, as he opened a fifth congressional hearing into the matter late last month.

"We have uncovered activities that are pretty disgusting, some perhaps criminal, many unethical. I think that from these hearings will come a series of ideas for change and reform."

Yet lobbyists and other Washington officials say the complexities of trying to root out corruption or undue political influence with legislation is evident in Dorgan himself, who received nearly $95,000 in contributions from Abramoff or his clients over four years.


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