A Justice Department investigation into influence-peddling on Capitol Hill is focusing on a “first tier” of lawmakers and staffers, both Republicans and Democrats, say sources close to the probe that has netted guilty pleas from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Law-enforcement authorities and others said the investigation’s opening phase is scrutinizing Sens. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican; Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat; and Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, along with Reps. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, and Bob Ney, Ohio Republican.
A source working with the Justice Department on the investigation told The Washington Times that Abramoff was questioned during several interviews about the lawmakers and their purported ties to the lobbyist and his former clients.
The source said prosecutors asked Abramoff whether the lawmakers had performed “official acts” in exchange for campaign cash or other favors. Although it is unknown whether any of the five will be charged in the case, the source said Abramoff was being “prepped” by five Justice Department attorneys in that event.
Others familiar with the investigation confirmed the names of the three Republican and two Democratic legislators.
All five lawmakers said that they have not done anything illegal and that all their dealings with Abramoff and his clients were legitimate.
The sources also said that at least two legislative directors and other lobbyists are under investigation in the preliminary round of inquiry. The probe is expected to widen and could ensnare “a minimum” of 20 members of Congress, they said.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has not been directly implicated by Abramoff in the probe, but the Texas Republican’s former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, has emerged as a person of interest in the preliminary probe, the sources said.
Mr. DeLay’s former communications director, Michael Scanlon, also worked as an Abramoff business partner and pleaded guilty in November to corruption charges. Scanlon also is cooperating in the government probe.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington on Jan. 3 to conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud in a scheme involving what he described as the “corruption of public officials,” saying he raised campaign cash, funded trips and gave other items to lawmakers “in exchange for certain official acts.”
Seeking to reduce a 30-year prison sentence to 91/2 years, Abramoff has agreed with prosecutors to cooperate fully in the government’s influence-peddling investigation. Prosecutors have seized his computer hard drive and are reviewing 500,000 e-mails.
Jim Manley, Mr. Reid’s spokesman, said that no official acts were performed for Abramoff and that the senator has always opposed the expansion of off-reservation gambling, a stance favorable to Abramoff’s clients.
“These kinds of wild and baseless rumors smack of desperation and is simply a desperate attempt by Republicans to drag Democrats into a scandal they own lock, stock and barrel,” Mr. Manley said.
He said Mr. Reid also has asked the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to review his decisions on Indian gaming matters involving Abramoff.
Mr. Reid has acknowledged receiving contributions from Abramoff’s clients, but has said he does not intend to return the money because it represented legal donations. The sources said Mr. Reid is thought to have collected as much as $61,000 in donations from Abramoff clients, including Indian tribes.