Tuesday, January 10, 2006

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.

“Senator Reid has done nothing wrong, and he doesn’t see any reason why he would need to return the money,” spokeswoman Tessa Hafen said last week.

Mr. Burns, who chairs a subcommittee with influence over funding for American Indian programs, has returned or given to charity $150,000 he received from Abramoff, his partners or his tribal clients. He sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on Nov. 28 asking for an investigation in the matter to clear his name, his spokesman, Matt Mackowiak, said.

“Mr. Burns has a long record of supporting Indian tribe education programs, and it goes way back before Abramoff was a lobbyist,” Mr. Mackowiak said. “Senator Burns took the lead and was one of the first members to return all contributions, and as a result, more than 100 members will give back money that is linked to Abramoff.

“He believes he will be cleared of any wrongdoing,” he said, adding that Mr. Burns told the Justice Department that he would cooperate fully and has directed his staff to do the same.

The Tigua Indian Tribe in El Paso, Texas, said it donated $22,000 to Mr. Burns in 2002 at Abramoff’s request, thinking the Montana Republican was part of “Abramoff’s group.” The tribe hired Abramoff to lobby on its behalf to reopen a casino. FBI agents have interviewed tribal leaders about the donations, the sources said.

Mr. Burns has said the money had no bearing on any of his congressional actions.

Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Mr. Dorgan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said neither the senator nor his campaign office has been contacted by the Justice Department, adding that the senator never received a direct contribution from Abramoff.

“I don’t believe we have been informed of that,” Mr. Piatt said of the investigation. “I have my doubts, the process is that they would have contacted us and they have not.”

Mr. Dorgan returned $67,000 donated to him by Indian tribes tied to Abramoff. He has said he did nothing wrong but was returning the money to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

Mr. Hayworth said in a written response that the Justice Department would be accused of dereliction “if it did not examine everyone who ever accepted a contribution from Abramoff or any of his tribal clients, so I’m not surprised.” He said he welcomed the chance to clear up the matter.

Mr. Hayworth said he had performed many official acts benefiting Indian tribes, but had never performed any act specifically for an Abramoff client. He said Abramoff’s tribal clients had contributed to both his campaign and his political action committee, “which is not surprising since as chairman of the Native American Caucus, I have been in the forefront of issues affecting Indian Country and receive contributions from tribes across America.”

He said he did not expect “this preliminary round of the inquiry to produce anything that would make any further examination necessary.”

The Arizona Republican has said he received $100,000 in campaign cash from Indian tribes, including $2,250 from those affiliated with Abramoff — which he will return. He told reporters in Arizona that the donations he received were being used to unfairly link him with Abramoff, adding that he did nothing wrong in accepting the $2,250 in 1998 and 1999 from three tribes once represented by Abramoff.

Mr. Ney, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he gave to the American Indian College Fund the $6,500 in campaign donations he received from Abramoff.

“At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff’s activities,” Mr. Ney said in the statement.

Identified only as “Representative No. 1” in the Abramoff indictment, Mr. Ney received a “lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses” and other benefits in exchange for support on various issues. The indictment said Abramoff arranged for a $50,000 check to be sent from Texas to pay for the Scotland trip.

The indictment also said Abramoff and Scanlon “sought and received Representative No. 1’s agreement to perform a series of official acts” that benefited the lobbyists or their clients. In return, the indictment said, the lobbyists “provided a stream of things of value to Representative No. 1 and members of his staff.”

Abramoff also has pleaded guilty in federal court in Miami to conspiracy and fraud charges in a separate scheme to purchase 200 casino boats, saying in court he and a partner faked a $23 million wire transfer in a $147.5 million deal to purchase the boats.

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