Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate in an ongoing investigation into influence peddling on Capitol Hill.

Abramoff admitted to U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle he had taken part in a scheme involving the “corruption of public officials,” saying he gave campaign contributions and funded lavish trips and other items “in exchange for certain official acts.”

As part of the plea bargain, Abramoff agreed to pay at least $25 million in restitution — which the government has described as the profits he concealed as part of the conspiracy.

“Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes,” he told Judge Huvelle in the Washington courtroom. “I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I’ve wronged or caused to suffer.”

It was not clear yesterday who might be targeted in the government probe, although both Republicans and Democrats have been the beneficiaries of Abramoff’s lobbying activities. Since he was first identified as an investigative target, lawmakers from both parties have returned more than $200,000 in campaign contributions.

Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said the Justice Department will pursue the investigation “wherever it goes” and intended to “expend the resources to make sure people know that government is not for sale.” Abbe Lowell, Abramoff’s attorney, said his client will continue to work with investigators.

Democrats are expected to make ethics a centerpiece of this year’s midterm election. After Mr. Abramoff’s confession, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the Republican-led Congress the “most corrupt in history.” Republican leaders were silent.

According to court documents, Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, conspired to defraud Indian tribes in six states of millions of dollars. Scanlon pleaded guilty to related charges in Miami in November.

The court documents also said Abramoff gave public officials and their relatives gifts of money, trips, meals and entertainment in return for favorable treatment of his clients. One member of the House, identified as Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, reportedly received a “lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses” and other benefits in exchange for support on various issues.

The documents said Abramoff arranged for a $50,000 check to be sent through the mail from Texas to pay for the Scotland trip. Abramoff also is accused of arranging for one of Mr. Ney’s former staff members to lobby the congressman in 2002 before the ex-staffer’s one-year ban on lobbying had expired.

Mr. Ney has denied any wrongdoing, saying yesterday that at the time he dealt with Abramoff, “I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff’s activities.” The congressman’s attorney, Mark Tuohey, described the charges as “nothing new,” saying they were included in a November plea agreement by Scanlon.

Also at issue are Abramoff’s ties to Mr. DeLay, who accepted about $57,000 in campaign contributions as well as golf outings and other trips provided for or arranged by the lobbyist for lawmakers.

The documents also said Abramoff, who is expected to plead guilty to two additional federal charges in Florida stemming from a 2000 purchase of a fleet of gambling boats, filed a tax return for 2002 that concealed his illegal income.

Abramoff told Judge Huvelle “I plead guilty, your Honor” to each of three counts outlined in a November indictment. He had faced up to 30 years in prison, but prosecutors are expected to recommend 9 years under terms of the plea bargain.

Prosecutors are thought to have finalized the Abramoff deal after a guilty plea by former partner Adam Kidan, who admitted Dec. 15 in federal court in Miami to committing mail and wire fraud in connection with the 2000 boat deal in Florida.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan could not say yesterday whether Abramoff had ever met with President Bush, although the lobbyist and his associates logged more than 200 visits with administration officials and he raised $100,000 for Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

Mr. McClellan called Abramoff’s actions “unacceptable and outrageous.” The spokesman said, “If laws were broken, he must be held to account for what he did.”

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, joined the growing list of lawmakers who have either returned money received from Abramoff or given it to charities. Lawmakers who have done so include Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican; Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana Republican; Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican; Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat; Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican; and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.

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