Image: Jack Abramoff
Tom Williams  /  Polaris
Jack Abramoff, seen leaving the courthouse on Tuesday, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate in an investigation that threatens members of Congress.
updated 1/3/2006 7:45:38 PM ET 2006-01-04T00:45:38
ANALYSIS

The plea deal worked out by Jack Abramoff could send seismic waves across the political landscape in this congressional election year. The Republicans, who control Congress and the White House, are likely to take the biggest hits.

The GOP has more seats to lose and has closer ties with the former lobbyist. But some Democrats with links to Abramoff and his associates are also expected to be snagged in the influence-peddling net.

While the full dimensions of the corruption probe are not yet clear, some political consultants and analysts are already comparing its damage potential to the 1992 House banking scandal that led to the retirement or ouster of 77 lawmakers.

“You don’t have to be a political genius to sniff the smell of blood in the water,” said GOP consultant Rich Galen.

Galen said even lawmakers in seemingly safe districts, and those “who don’t have a reputation for being fast and loose with the rules,” could be vulnerable if voters rise up in reproach “and everybody drops five or six points” in this year’s midterm contests.

Abramoff, a former $100,000-plus fund-raiser for President Bush with close ties to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud. That cleared the way for his cooperation with federal prosecutors in bringing charges against former business and political associates.

The investigation is believed to involve up to 20 members of Congress and aides and possibly several administration officials.

Bad timing for Republicans
The timing couldn’t be worse, politically, especially for Republicans. Lawmakers who may be indicted could find themselves coming to trial this summer, just ahead of the midterm elections. Around the same time, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case.

DeLay, who had to step down as majority leader in September after a grand jury in Texas indicted him in a campaign finance investigation, is awaiting a trial date. And former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., gave up his seat Dec. 1 after admitting he had accepted $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

With so many trials and prosecutions in the works, speculation is swirling over whom Abramoff might bring down and on the possible fallout for others.

“Most seats in Congress are relatively safe this year. But they are not safe from a tsunami,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of a book on political scandals. “Iraq, plus economic problems, plus these scandals, could produce a tsunami. That’s what every incumbent on Capitol Hill has to fear.”

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Most Americans are convinced that corruption reaching into all levels of government is a deeply rooted problem. According to an AP-Ipsos poll last month, 88 percent say the problem is a serious one, with 51 percent calling it “very serious.”

People need to know “that government is not for sale,” Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in pledging to pursue the investigation “wherever it goes.”

For months, federal prosecutors have focused on whether Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars and used improper influence on members of Congress. Tribes represented by the lobbyist contributed millions of dollars in casino income to congressional campaigns.

Abramoff also took members of Congress on lavish overseas trips and provided sports tickets, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment and jobs for lawmakers’ relatives and aides.

Monetary contributions returned
Some lawmakers have already returned contributions. Others no doubt are nervously scouring their memories and appointment books.

For years, many lawmakers have shrugged off lobbyists’ gifts as campaign contributions, harmless wining, dining and socializing. “Now you’ve got someone admitting exactly what the motivation was and explaining all the avenues they used,” said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official.

“You’re talking about standard operating procedure here in Washington suddenly being turned on its head and a key operator signing a plea agreement that he may have been involved in some kind of public corruption,” said Cooper, who tracks lobbying and campaign contributions for the nonpartisan Political Money Line service.

The Democratic National Committee called the situation the latest installment of a Republican “culture of corruption.” That notion was disputed by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who denounced Abramoff’s activities as “outrageous” and noted that the lobbyist and his clients contributed to both parties.

That may be so, said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, “but it will disproportionately affect Republicans. They are the majority party and because Abramoff is a conservative Republican.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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