updated 1/4/2006 2:39:27 PM ET 2006-01-04T19:39:27

Guests Eamon Javers, Jim VandeHei, Alan Simpson, Howard Fineman, Charlie Cook, Jimmy Faircloth

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  January 3, 2006.

That new name was added to the pantheon of sleaze—Jack Abramoff pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion and the big one, bribery.  Now comes the exciting part.  The wheeler dealer who paid congressmen to sing the praises of his clients, the biggest briber of them all will now be singing the names of those he bribed. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

A live grenade has been rolled into the heart of Washington.  Tonight after months of negotiations, super lobbyist Jack Abramoff struck a deal with federal prosecutors today and pleaded guilty to corruption charges, chief among them bribing politicians.  It‘s a thunderbolt that reaches up to the highest levels of power and could implicate up to 20 members of the U.S. Congress. 

We‘re also waiting for a news conference from officials in West Virginia at that mine where 13 brave men have been trapped since an explosion yesterday.

But we begin with the Abramoff plea today. 

Let‘s bring in Eamon Javers of “Business Week,” Jim VandeHei of the “Washington Post,” and on the phone is former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. 

Eamon, what happened today? 

EAMON JAVERS, “BUSINESS WEEK”:  Well, up there with Jack Abramoff at the front of this courtroom today, Chris, was—you know, Jack Abramoff was pleading guilty but on trial really was a way of Washington life.  The schmoozeathon, the money, the donations to front groups—all of that has been in some ways business as usual here in Washington. 

Today, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to three counts and they‘re expecting now he‘s going to start working with the feds who are looking to prosecute members of Congress and their staffs for bribery. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim, what‘s the headline in terms of members of Congress who are going to drop because of this, whose careers will be finished? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “WASHINGTON POST”:  I mean, I think at the top of that list is Bob Ney.  He‘s chairman of the House Administration Committee, probably not a household name but a pretty powerful guy up on the Hill.  He‘s—his name is clearly—he‘s the representative number one listed throughout the material that was released today. 

But there‘s also I think several other members who have got to be nervous—everyone from Tom DeLay to Representative Pombo.  Anybody who‘s had any dealings with Jack Abramoff over the years and have gotten a lot of campaign contributions from him is probably a little bit nervous today. 

What we don‘t know, there are a lot of details that weren‘t in here.  We did not get a huge description of everything probably that Jack Abramoff will testify to.  So I think this thing is going to continue to cascade and continue to unfold. 

MATTHEWS:  What sets Jack Abramoff from other lobbyists? 

JAVERS:  Well, more, more, more.  Jack Abramoff...

MATTHEWS:  More money?

JAVERS:  More money, more access, more influence, and according to the government today, more corruption.

But what really was going on here was a case where Jack came to town in the mid ‘90s and sort of worked his way in as the Republicans took power in 1994.  He worked himself into that power establishment and became one of the key players behind the scenes for years. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I‘ve never heard, Jim VandeHei—I‘ve worked in this town for a third of a century, working on the Hill, working in the White House, covering it for the last 17 or 18 years; I have never heard of a guy bilking a client out of something like $20 million, these Indian tribes, calling them morons and troglodytes, laughing at them as he‘s bilked them for millions and millions of dollars, meanwhile delivering no apparent service to them; and then buying congressmen to put stuff in the record for other clients; buying columnists at the Copley News Service, buying somebody over there; buying and selling of people and then walking around today in his version of sack cloth and ashes, about a $2,000 Chesterfield overcoat, looking like a goon—I mean, a very well paid one. 

I‘m sorry, I disagree with you, Eamon.  I think he is distinctive in this town.  What do you think, Jim?  What are the facts here? 

VANDEHEI:  He‘s absolutely distinctive. 

Listen, there‘s a lot of stuff that goes on in this town, but the amount of money is absolutely staggering.  The amount of money that both Abramoff and his partner Mike Scanlon bilked from these Indian tribes, you‘re talking $50 million, which is a ton of cash even for the lobbying industry, which is generating a bunch of income. 

I mean, I think that‘s why you have all of these problems and all these new ethical questions being raised, because there‘s so much money to be made on K Street.

But what Jack did was absolutely unique.  The amount of money they were bringing in from these Indian tribes and then the amount of money he was pouring into these shadow companies that he‘s setting up, but also pouring into Republican coffers either on the Hill or in different Senate offices, this is a ton of money.

And I think that this is going to really provide an amazing window into what happens in Washington and how things get done in this cozy relationship that we‘ve had between lobbyists. 

This is not like any scandal we‘ve seen in the last 10 years. 

MATTHEWS:  No, I think this is fixing the World Series stuff. 

After pleading guilty, Abramoff said in federal court today, quote, “Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused.  All of my remaining days I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done.  I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer.  I will work hard to earn that redemption.” 

Well, those are a bunch of useless words. 

Let‘s talk about the facts here.

What did he give to get a plea deal with the prosecutors?  Is he going to give names? 

JAVERS:  He‘s going to have to give names if he doesn‘t want to do 30 years in jail, which is the maximum that he‘s looking at here, plus $25 million or more in restitution to the Indian tribes that the government says he defrauded—those were his clients.

So what he‘s going to have to give up are the names of members of Congress and their staffs who participated in what the government seems to be setting up as a bribery scam, and that could be a lot of names. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s interesting—Jim, it‘s fascinating that the judge has said, “I‘ll rule on your sentence when you‘ve participated in all the proceedings here.” 

How is that going to work, that vice? 

VANDEHEI:  I read that as more to come. 

I think what we saw today is probably the bare minimum that they‘re going to get out of Jack and I think they want to continue to press and grind and to get as many members as they possibly can. 

Because think of this as sort of a tightening noose.  They‘re going to try to get more and more people to cooperate.  Now they‘ll try to get staffers, chief of staff, you know, say to DeLay or to Ney or other members who then testify against those members. 

Clearly, Justice is going after a pretty massive—what they see as a bribery scandal.  I think really interesting and illustrative is looking at what they talk about with representative one in today‘s information, which is clearly Bob Ney.  They show a ton of gifts that he got, whether it‘s a trip to Scotland or campaign contributions, and then favors that they say he returned, doing things for many of Jack‘s partners, including partners that have absolutely nothing to do with his Ohio district. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you prove bribery?

Bribery is a difficult case to prove, because you have to show there‘s a quid pro quo, where a member of Congress or public official says, “Give me this and I‘ll give you that,” which you shouldn‘t be giving away to anybody. 

(CROSSTALK)

JAVERS:  ... the quid and the quo.  What they have to prove is the pro, that he did this for that.  And that‘s why...

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you need a staffer in the room?

JAVERS:  That‘s why they need Jack and that‘s what they‘ve got today. 

Jack Abramoff is now going to be there to say, “Yes, I gave him this in order to get that piece of legislation.” 

MATTHEWS:  So, “I got Bob Ney to say something in the congressional record and I gave him something back for that”? 

JAVERS:  Right.

And that‘s that crucial linchpin of this case that the government needed.  Now members of Congress on Capitol Hill are going to have to be very wary that Jack Abramoff is going to start naming names. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about the short hairs here.

Let‘s talk about Tom DeLay.  Jim, all I‘ve been able to read in the clips—I read a pile of them today—you know more.  Tell me, what do they got potentially on DeLay? 

VANDEHEI:  Well, looking at this indictment, I don‘t see really any

reference to DeLay himself at all. 

MATTHEWS:  How about the $57,000 campaign contribution?  Is that it?

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  That‘s not in here, but I think that would be the case. 

There‘s been a bunch of reporting in our paper which has really been out front—Sue Schmidt, Jim Grimaldi and Jeffrey Smith have been way out front talking about how all of these contributions that went to DeLay, but also money that went from different clients of Jack‘s that went to either DeLay‘s wife or DeLay‘s associates. 

I think that seems to be where the Justice Department is looking at right now.  But there is nothing in today‘s indictment that talks about him, per se. 

JAVERS:  Here‘s why today was a bad day for Tom DeLay. 

In this criminal information that was released today, they talk about a guy named staffer A.  And I‘m told by former Abramoff associates today that they‘re widely assuming that that‘s Tony Rudy, who‘s the former deputy chief of staff to Tom DeLay, who is mentioned in this in connection with one of these bribery schemes that was going on. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he the songbird here? 

JAVERS:  He might be the next person to flip. 

At some point I‘d be watching for indictments of Tony Rudy and also for Neil Volz, who is Congressman Ney‘s chief of staff, both of whom went to work... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Would Abramoff have pled today to all these charges if Michael Scanlon hadn‘t talked, Jim? 

VANDEHEI:  I don‘t think we know that.  Probably.

I mean, the case against Jack seems so cut and dry.  It seems like he‘s in a bunch of trouble.  He knew it.  According to his lawyer, he‘s been working on this plea for about 18 months.  You know, he knows that to keep himself from going to jail for up to 30 years and to having to pay a lot more money than he already has to—and we‘re talking he has to pay back at least $25 million right now—he had to turn. 

He had to turn on all those people on the Hill that helped him, and that‘s what‘s so interesting.  These guys were friends, they were buddies.  These guys worked together, they raised money together.  Jack gave Tony Rudy a job.  I mean, this is how this stuff—you know, he‘s really turning on some close allies and close friends to save his hide. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s describe the world we‘re talking about here. 

On Capitol Hill, there‘s 435 members of the House, 100 senators.  They have big staffs.  Most of their staffs, my experience tells me, are totally dedicated ideologues.  They believe in the philosophy of the member of Congress and the senator they work for.  They believe in the dream of American life.  They‘re good people. 

But there are also people on Capitol Hill, some of them who went there to work just to become lobbyists some day, the real potential sleazeballs.  This guy comes along to a staffer and says—he‘s got his tan, he‘s got his expensive suit, he takes them to a nice restaurant.  He says, “Do you want to live like me some day?  Play ball with me.” 

Is that what we‘re watching here? 

JAVERS:  Yes.  And a lot of these...

MATTHEWS:  That is what we‘re seeing? 

JAVERS:  Absolutely. 

And a lot of these staffers—you have to look at the culture here.  These are young guys, late 20s, early 30s.  They‘re making maybe at the top end somewhere near $100,000.  A guy like Jack Abramoff can come up and offer them $300,000 to start at a lobbying firm if...

MATTHEWS:  If you play ball with me now, right?

JAVERS:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  And they give away their influence with the member starting the day they start having dinner together.

JAVERS:  Well, and the question is, how much do the members know?  I mean, a lot of what goes on, on Capitol Hill is totally staff driven, as you more than anybody knows.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I know all about it.

JAVERS:  And so the question is, did these members know what these staffers were doing?

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Here‘s the problem.  I was told, Jim, by a friend of mine who is member of Congress, he said the most dangerous relationship in the world is between a member of Congress and a former staffer. 

The former staffer asks for an appointment with him.  He calls him up, comes to see him and says look I have a client who wants this done, it‘s totally clean, the merits are there.  And he said you can never trust that staffer to fully vet a client‘s position.  It could well be that they do think they‘re giving you a clean piece of work to do and what they‘re doing is giving you the best case for it, they haven‘t told you all the angles. 

VANDEHEI:  No, it‘s a very dangerous relationship because they‘re getting paid a lot of money to get results and they‘re getting hired specifically because of that relationship they have with their former employer. 

This stuff happens all the time.  I don‘t think we see it happen at this level.  There was a ton of stuff happening between Jack and people that work on the hill, especially in the DeLay orbit and clearly for Bob Ney‘s office. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a sense, Jim, if you look back on some other cases, like ABSCAM which brought in six members of The House were finished afterwards, and a senator, Pete Williams went down.  Do you have a sense that this will be as wide ranging in its consequence? 

VANDEHEI:  It certainly has the potential to be.  I think even more wide ranging.  Not only is it going to expose a lot of illegality in the relationship Abramoff had with members of Congress, but also an entire what Democrats are calling a culture of corruption. 

There is this sort of culture, where people, I don‘t think a lot of people know that they‘re breaking the law, because even the ethics committee will write laws that will let you sit if a sky box over at the MCI center, which would cost you or me a couple hundred dollars, but they somehow justify that and say that fits within the $50 rule. 

MATTHEWS:  Because there is no price for a seat within a box.  I get it.  I‘m talking about real corruption, week long trips, things that really might influence your judgment, not a night at the game.  And I guess the question is, you know, how many do you think are going to swing? 

JONES:  I‘ve got one source and it‘s just one source so it is not corroborated, who says it could be as many as 60 members of Congress, that‘s the total pool the Department of Justice is looking at.  We‘re hearing today numbers like 20, a dozen. 

MATTHEWS:  Could this be partisan in the end, Eamon?  In other words, not that the fact that they are Republicans meant that they were crooked, but because—because Abramoff is a Republican, because he‘s a conservative, because he makes all the right noises politically? 

He has worked with people, Ralph Reed, the names of people he works with, they‘re all Republicans it seems. 

JONES:  A lot of what he was doing, he was in some ways, you could make the case, he‘s hijacking the conservative movement which came to Washington ideologically and deploying it for his own purposes. 

MATTHEWS:  So he exploited all the relationships he had ideologically with the right. 

JONES:  I did a study a couple of weeks back on these think tank guys who were taking money on the side from Jack Abramoff to write op-ed pieces in their columns saying nice things about jack‘s clients.  These were people who had long held conservative values, libertarian values, and suddenly when Jack enters the picture and starts giving them the money, they start focusing their attention on Jack‘s client. 

That‘s how it starts.  Two grand a pop, something small builds up.

MATTHEWS:  Is that illegal? 

JONES:  It‘s not illegal. 

MATTHEWS:  You can hire a major national columnist and say here‘s a couple thousand, write something about my client and that‘s legal? 

JONES:  His boss might have something to say about it if he doesn‘t know about it. 

VANDEHEI:  A lot of this stuff happens to be legal.  Eamon talked about 20 members or more; I would be shocked if it were that high.  If anything, I think we‘re still isolated on about six members that are probably getting a serious look at from Justice, because to actually prove that bribe, I mean, taking a bunch of campaign contributions, taking a meal, a lot of that stuff can be legal.  Like you were saying, to hit that threshold of bribery in a public corruption case is much harder to prove. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘d like to see somebody prosecute a columnist.  I mean it, who takes money for a column.  Anyway, let‘s go to Alan Simpson, former senator from Wyoming, a good friend of this show. 

Senator Simpson, do you want to explain this in the context—let me ask you what you know about this case and where it‘s headed. 

FMR. SEN. ALAN SIMPSON (R-WY):  I have been absolutely fascinated that you‘ve got some great debate and discussion going on. 

To me, it is a case of wretched excess, and I think Jim or both of the panelists talking about staff, let me tell you, the members have no idea when the staff member is taken down to a place like signatures and given a bottle of Opus One and caviar and lobster, and then two weeks later you see this nut sitting in front of you and your staff guy comes in and you say why am I visiting with this guy?  well I know him and he‘s a good egg and you need to talk to him.

But I‘ll tell you, I don‘t feel sorry for Jack at all.  Big cars, big money, and big heads, that‘s what happens to them.  It really is about greed and arrogance, and to think what he took.  I mean, if his whole package of compensation was $300,000 over those years, nobody would be talking.

But what he did here, to Indian tribes, these are the people we read about in every type of publication, alcoholism, diabetes, poverty, and sucking that kind of money out of them, this guy has got to be crass and coarse to pull that one off.  That‘s the part of this one that stinks. 

MATTHEWS:  He remind me of one of those old Indian agents in the cowboy movies, the sleazy guy that sold the bad meat, remember that, and stole their blankets. 

SIMPSON:  Are you accusing me of selling blankets and fire water? 

MATTHEWS:  No, you‘re the good Indian agent.  You‘re Tom Jeffers, he‘s the good guy in “Broken Arrow.”

Let me ask you about, didn‘t you bump into one of these lawyers and got an inside scoop on this case recently? 

SIMPSON:  Oddly enough I did and they kept punching me around to find out who it was.  They said well just describe what he looked like and I said no I‘ll pass on that one too.  He just said to me he‘s one of the many lawyers that represent Jack.  There have been a herd of them because there‘s money still out there and when there‘s money the herd rolls and all he said was, without being sinister, there‘s going to be some pretty big guys taken down. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re looking at that right now.  Senator, I want to ask you about the hill.  You know, I know having worked up there for senators and congressmen and for the speaker of the house, I know that members live on their salaries, 99 percent of you guys lived on your salaries. 

Every time there was a pay raise issue over three or four percent,  people fought like hell to get that raise because they lived on that salary.  Do you want to defend the system up there, that Jack Abramoff isn‘t typical of Washington? 

SIMPSON:  I‘ve worked with your boss in ways where he was one of the finest guys I ever knew.  Here‘s Tip O‘Neill, a Democrat and a powerhouse, there was no one more powerful, but he never abused that power.  Here I am freshman senator from Wyoming, Republican, everything he said to me, he kept his word.  This is the way it worked. 

This is about common sense and greed and it‘s really about access, access, access.  And Bill Bradley and I, I am pumping, we don‘t make a nickel off of this one, we‘re the co-chairs of a national campaign on campaign reform and we‘ve got to have it. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve got to go right now.  Hold on Senator Alan Simpson.  Let‘s go to West Virginia where the officials are about to begin a news conference on the efforts to rescue those brave miners. 

BEN HATFIELD, PRES., & CEO OF INTERNATIONAL COAL:  Thank you for your attention.  We‘d like to give you an update on the status of our rescue efforts.  Mine rescue teams continue to move quickly toward the second left section area where we are hopeful the missing miners are located. 

We have now advanced a total distance of about 11,200 feet, which is the distance from the mine portal to break number 56.  At current pace, we are hopeful that the rescue crews will reach the furthest extent of the second left section within the next three to five hours. 

To update you on the drilling program, both drill hole number two and drill hole number three are now completed to within 20 feet of the Sago mine roof.  The drilling advance has been suspended so as to avoid having to withdraw the rescue crews from the mine while they are making significant progress. 

You may recall that as a safety precaution before any of the drill holes penetrate the mine atmosphere, we withdraw the crews to keep them protected, and so following that precaution, we‘re simply holding up the drilling while the crews are moving forward quickly and making significant progress. 

We will keep you posted on further developments as soon as they are known.  With that, I‘d be glad to take any questions. 

QUESTION:  Carbon monoxide levels at this time still the same? 

HATFIELD:  No new information on that, essentially encountering the same levels in the entries we‘re currently working. 

QUESTION:  How are you keeping the families‘ hopes alive that you‘re doing everything that‘s possible to get their loved ones? 

HATFIELD:  It is our goal to keep hope alive wile there is hope and we don‘t want to discourage anyone that believes we can get there.  We believe we can get there if the crew has managed to barricade themselves and kept themselves protected from the noxous fumes. 

Certainly with each our that passes, the likelihood of successful outcome diminishes.  Our efforts move forward as quickly as we can and we‘re fervently determined to do our very best to get to them. 

QUESTION:  In speaking with one of the family members, they talked about looking to the Cue Creek mine incident as inspiration and they actually seemed uplifted by that.  Are any of those members or the folks from that incident here counseling and talking with the family members? 

HATFIELD:  I do not know whether any of the Cue Creek people may have come to the group.  There‘s a large number of people gathered with the family and we just really aren‘t sure who may be over there, so I am uncertain.

QUESTION:  Sir, my community members want to know what they can do to help family members here and to help you.  Can they bring food or drink?  What can they do to help?

HATFIELD:  We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community, the Buckhannon community has come together magnificently and has supported us.  We‘ve got food stacked up everywhere: the churches, various ladies auxiliaries, civic groups, have just been overwhelming us with food.  So I wouldn‘t think we‘d need much food or anything of that nature.  I think at this point what we need are prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sir, could you talk to us a bit about the terrain that the rescue teams have encountered since we last talked?  It is again, we‘re back to the question—fire damage, explosion damage?  Anything that may indicate what caused this or to the extent of the damage?

HATFIELD:  The last report I had from the command center, they‘re still not encountering any issues with respect to debris or true explosive damage.  Again, we‘re encountering the same kinds of issues with respect to some ventilation structures that are damaged, which would be compression or pressure of the air essentially from a combustion that creates that kind of damage.  But we‘ve seen nothing that‘s been reported to me at this point with respect to true fire damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I know you hate to do this, but I think the time has come maybe for some speculation on what caused this.  I mean, we‘re not seeing anything coming from you, and I‘m not saying you‘re not trying to give us any information.  What I‘m trying to say is, something that points us in a direction of cause of this explosion, because everything seems to contradict each other.  All the indicators, fire and explosion, yet no indication of fire and explosion.

HATFIELD:  The facts are unchanged from what I told you earlier.  We do not know what caused this explosion.  It doesn‘t make sense to us that the methane levels are low everywhere we go and yet we had an explosion that seems to resemble a methane explosion. 

We do not know what happened and I think it would be a disservice to the investigation to try to speculate on what may have happened.  We just don‘t have that information.  Everybody on—within a mile of that mine office in the command center is just devoting 100 percent of their time to get these people out, if they are alive.  While there‘s hope of them being alive, our energies are devoted 100 percent to that effort.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s been six hours since the last briefing and it appears from my notes that you‘ve moved 1,000 feet.  It seems like something slows you down.  You went from 10,200 to 11,200.

HATFIELD:  What‘s—it‘s not really slowed down, but happens as we pass the entrance to a section, we have to go up in to that section to confirm that the atmosphere is safe for the rescuers to move further in by.  So we moved past the one left section and that caused us to have to go up into that one left panel and investigate the atmosphere before we moved further along. 

So it may appear that we weren‘t moving a great distance but we actually did.  We‘re now within something between 1,000-and-2,000 feet of where we believe the miners are most likely located, so there‘s been tremendous progress made since our last update.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Can you explain this ventilation structure?  Is it metal ductwork, what is it and how does it work?

HATFIELD:  The ventilation structures that are damaged are typically stacked concrete blocks. Sometimes they‘re grouted, depending on the nature of the particular application.  But a stacked concrete blocks that sometimes can get blown over and do get blown over when there‘s a significant force of air that impacts them.  So that‘s essentially what we‘re talking about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Can you talk about the exit strategy for when you do actually locate the miners?  I‘ve heard a couple of things about whether you‘ll drill a hole similar to the Pennsylvania theme or will you be able to bring them out through the main portal.

HATFIELD:  We‘re close enough now that we remain confident that if they‘re there and things are in good shape, then we would certainly bring them out the mine portal.  It would be far faster than drilling a hole from the surface. 

We have not encountered a physical impediment to moving forward from the mine portal to the two left section.  The impediment that we have encountered, the obstacles that we have encountered have been the mine atmosphere, the toxic gases, carbon monoxide as measured at the drill hole, which tells us that it‘s certainly somewhere out in front of us and we have to be careful about moving into it too quickly.  That‘s the impediment, so it‘s not a situation where you would even consider going around it with a major shaft drilled from the surface.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sir, could you explain why you would consider this a methane gas explosion?  Couldn‘t it be a coal dust explosion but did not involve methane?

HATFIELD:  I didn‘t say it was a methane explosion.  I said it resembles a methane explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Why does it resemble a methane explosion as opposed to another type of explosion?

HATFIELD:  It‘s an easy gas simply because at the time this explosion occurred, there was no production ongoing.  The production units were idle, so there was no dust being put into the air to create an ignition, from our perspective.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is carbon monoxide combustible, could that light the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere?

HATFIELD:  I don‘t think so.  I‘m not a chemist, but no, it‘s a product of combustion.  I don‘t think it‘s combustible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How many rescuers are in a team of rescuers, and how many are in there at a given time and what kind of suits or equipment are they wearing?

HATFIELD:  It‘s always one team at a time and they work in designated shifts.  I didn‘t bring the staff with me that could give you the specifics on the shifts, but I believe there‘s five people on a team.  Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s right.

HATFIELD:  Five people on a team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Plus some regulators.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE :  Usually one to three from the regulatory agencies.

HATFIELD:  Right.  So it‘s a total group of perhaps eight with three regulators and a five-man rescue team.  And they travel with fully self-contained apparatus that gives them the ability to go into a toxic environment if they have to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is it a moon suit kind of thing?

HATFIELD:  Not really a moon suit, as much as a full-face breathing apparatus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  At the point right now, that 11,200-foot mark, are they experiencing high levels of carbon monoxide there and is it every several hundred feet that they go, are they experiencing higher levels?  Is it increasing?

HATFIELD:  The last reports from the command centers is we‘re still seeing normalized carbon monoxide levels in the intake entry, so on the order of 25-to-35 parts per million.  And over in the returns, we‘re seeing 300-to-400.  Again the same pattern that we‘ve discussed earlier today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mr. Hatfield, there seems to be very little hope for the families to kind of latch on to you today.  Not too long ago, Governor Manchin suggested that people pray for a miracle because a miracle will be what it will take to find these guys alive.  Do you share his assessment of the situation or do you know something that could give these families more hope than they may have at the moment?

HATFIELD:  We are clearly in a situation where we need a miracle.  But miracles happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What time frame do you have to go from the rescue mode to saying it‘s going to become more of a retrievable mode?  Is there a time frame of when you say, “We don‘t know if they can survive this?”

HATFIELD:  Only when all hope is lost and all hope is not yet lost.  That time frame I gave you earlier about reaching the furthest extent of the two left section, that three-to-five hour period, I believe within that time frame we will most likely know what we‘re dealing with here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Could you tell me, when you say the furthest extent of the two left sections, what you think is there at this point?

HATFIELD:  Well, in a perfect scenario what would be there would be a safe crew of men that have barricaded themselves in and by some ingenious manner managed to maintain a safe breathing environment.  That‘s what we would ideally like to find.  But obviously with each hour that passes, the chances of that being the outcome aren‘t good.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And at this point there are no obstacles between the crews and that point other than the noxious gases you were talking about.

HATFIELD:  That‘s correct, there are no physical obstacles in a context of a roof fall or anything of that nature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Hatfield, can you describe to us—the tunnel there, it seemed of course on the maps that we looked last night, it looked rather wide.  Is there a possibility you could pass these guys up on your route, that maybe they would be down another way or something like that?

HATFIELD:  No.  The advancement of the rescue teams is very meticulous.  They cover the entire area and take atmospheric measurements at every location and take note of which ventilation structures are still standing or not.  So it‘s a very meticulous process and I‘m confident they will make accurate observations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Hatfield, have the rescue teams encountered anything along the way that would indicate that this crew passed this way?

HATFIELD:  Not at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mr. Hatfield, our research has shown some more serious safety violations at the mines from recent inspections.  Not just ones that, you know, you‘ve discussed or addressed the possibility that there were.  There were violations that didn‘t rise to a certain threshold, but have you found evidence of ones involving combustible materials, methane buildup?

HATFIELD:  Again, we have no interest in getting into the finger pointing or who‘s responsible for what, or what went wrong a year ago.  This is a mine that‘s operated for some significant time before my company even had involvement with it. 

So much of the bad history that you‘re talking about was beyond our reach and ability to control.  But there has been dramatic improvements and I think the regulatory agencies will confirm that dramatic improvement.  So we continue to move forward and do our best to get our people out safely and that‘s all we‘re focused on at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How wide is second left?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  When did you company take over? 

HATFIELD:  Pardon?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How wide is second left?

HATFIELD:  Second left I believe is nine entries wide and each center to center of the entries are about 80 feet.  So you could do the math.  Maybe 700, 800-feet wide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Hatfield, in your time in this business have you been involved with the potential of what you‘re facing in this mine?

HATFIELD:  I‘ve never been involved with a mine disaster anywhere remotely approaching this magnitude.  This is a sad day for all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think I missed it earlier.  If it‘s just noxious gases that‘s between the rescue crews and the men that are underground, why can‘t they put on moon suits and self-contained breathing apparatus and walk to the back of the face?  I don‘t understand? 

HATFIELD:  That‘s not how the process works, because if they were to doing that without being sure that they‘re traveling with safe intake air, there‘s risk of an ignition.  Whatever caused the first one could happen again because we still don‘t know what caused the first one, so the risk of the crews getting so far in by the fresh air that they‘re at risk of another ignition, another explosion is simply not a risk we can take. 

QUESTION:  Will you send in the robot again or could that be helpful at this point? 

HATFIELD:  We‘ve had very little success with the robot.  It started out well but quickly became mired in mud and other obstacles, so it hasn‘t been as productive as we had hoped. 

QUESTION:  What were the other obstacles?  Are you talking the track or the ...

HATFIELD:  We‘re talking about the floor terrain, which proved to be a problem for this particular model.  I don‘t know much about it, I‘m not schooled in any respect with regard to these robotics. 

QUESTION:  The track problems had nothing to do with the explosion or

... 

HATFIELD:  No, it‘s not related to the explosion.  It‘s simply the terrain of the mine floor seemed to be incompatible with what the robot needed to move forward and that seemed to be the problem. 

We will be back as soon as we have more information to give you an update and again I‘m hoping that we can do that somewhere in the next two to five hours.  When we can come here and tell you more, we will.  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was a very grim update from the officials at the mine over in West Virginia.  They‘re talking about it requiring a miracle to save these 13 trapped miners.  And, in fact, they said it would take three to five hours to reach the location where they believe they are at this point, but a very desperate report there.  Let‘s go to Bob Hager who is covering this story—Bob. 

ROBERT HAGER, NBC NEWS ANALYST:  Chris, your assessment is exactly right.  It‘s just very, very grim—the grimmest—and the odds are very long here, but as long as there‘s nothing confirmed, one continues to hope against hope. 

Let me try to translate.  I know you were showing some graphics there.  I wanted to give you an idea of what he‘s talking about here.  This is a little drawing.  Here‘s the side of the mountain, here‘s the shaft going into the mountain. 

This is two miles here, so the explosion occurred somewhere up in here, and trapping the trapped miners on the other side and that‘s what—we don‘t know what happened to them, whether they were stunned or could have been killed immediately or could have hopefully scrambled up into an area of this mine.

So they dropped these—they drilled these holes down here to see if they could see more of what was going on while they put rescue teams in here. 

Now let me go to this other homemade graphic.  Same thing, you‘re looking at the same diagram from up above, so turn it this way now.  You‘re looking down on the mine.  Here‘s the shaft going in.  The explosion occurred somewhere back in here. 

The rescue teams have worked their way up here and they—here‘s the three places that they drilled holes from up above.  This hole they got down this morning, discovered very, very toxic levels of gas.  The camera was down there, saw no sign of the—of miners. 

So then they started two more holes.  They got those holes down to within 20 feet of the roof of the mine, but meanwhile, they‘re making very good progress with these rescue teams working their way in, so they suspended this drilling and everything is now hanging on the rescue teams.

So there is where he‘s talking about three to five hours—one time he said two to five, one time he said three to five—to make their way to the end of this shaft and go up here in search of these men. 

So he put that timeframe on it and the distance he talked about, 1,000 to 2,000 feet, so think of it as three football fields up to six, six and a half football fields of length that they have got to make their way meticulously through, hoping against hope, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  The mining official made the point that he thought it would be possible—and I think it was clearly just a possibility—that the miners trapped down there, the 13 men, might be able to rig up some kind of ceiling device.  There are no chamberization of these mines, there‘s no way to cut yourself off from air, is there, to save yourself in this case? 

HAGER:  Well, yes, they put along the way—along any shaft of a mine, they put these concrete cinder blocks that can be disassembled and they hang curtains, cloth material that hangs down to prevent the air from moving through or at least direct most of the air around. 

That all has to do with a circulation pattern, and keeping circulated air, fresh air in there.  The hope is here that—there‘s also some temporary curtains laying around, just in case of a disaster like this.

So part of this hope against hope is that these men may have only been stunned by the explosion, were able to protect themselves from the toxic gas for the hour or so that they might have had with their breathing devices, located those curtains which would be prepositioned up in that area someplace and been able to find a pocket where the air was still fresh and put those curtains up, and be able to find a safe haven there to await rescue.  That‘s what they‘re talking about, but it would be erecting those curtains. 

MATTHEWS:  I keep thinking, Bob—I don‘t know about you—what a courageous way to make a living for your family ...

HAGER:  Oh my God, oh ...

MATTHEWS:  ... and the hell these guys face down there every day. 

HAGER:  It‘s unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Bob, it‘s great to have you on the show. 

HAGER:  Sure.  Thank you, Chris.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Robert Hager reporting on this mining disaster in West Virginia.  Up next, a big story here in Washington, the guilty plea today from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  We‘ll look at Abramoff‘s rise to power, his ultimate fall and what Congressmen could be in trouble, which of them whose names we think were going to be named by this unfortunately placed fellow.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  How did Jack Abramoff become so powerful?  Joining me right now, experts Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and “The National Journal‘s” Charlie Cook who writes “The Cook Political Report.” 

Howard, we got a little hot note in here tonight that Denny Hastert, the speaker of the house is going to give back $69,000 that he got from Jack Abramoff.  He‘s going to give it to charity.  He‘s going to try to clear up his relationship.  We‘re hearing a lot of this now.  All these guys on the road to Damascus are being converted now as people who don‘t like their relationship with Jack Abramoff. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, they were defending—everybody was defending this as business as usual until today. 

I think having talked with an attorney like Bob Bennett, who knows a lot about criminal defense work here, he says there‘s more than a handful of members of Congress who are not sleeping well these days, because they want to disassociate themselves, as Hastert is now trying to do, from Jack Abramoff, who by my calculations in this indictment, had at least $20 million to spread around.  That‘s a lot of money. 

MATTHEWS:  Money he could use—he got from clients? 

FINEMAN:  Campaign donations, he could direct—this isn‘t even stuff he could direct from clients.  This was his own money he was siphoning off according to what he pleaded guilty to today.  That‘s powerful big bucks around.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m going to be a skeptic about this being partisan until we learn a little more about how many guys‘ fish is going to be fried here. 

Let‘s go with this first one.  He seems to be tied into the religious right, he‘s got Ralph Reed working with him, he‘s obviously been giving money to Hastert, he‘s given money to DeLay.  Is this a Republican problem here or a congressional problem? 

CHARLIE COOK, NATIONAL JOURNAL:  He is—Jack Abramoff is a Republican, and obviously you work your side of the fence and, while there‘s a little dabbling on the other side, you work your side. 

First of all, who wants to buy the minority?  You want to buy the majority.  We Democrats don‘t have any power, why the hell would you want to go after them?  This was working his side of the fence. 

When you‘re in power for a long time, this kinds of stuff happens and it happened with Democrats in previous cycles, it‘s happened with Republicans now.  I‘ve been if Washington 33 years.  Both of you guys have been here a long time.  I‘ve known a lot of lobbyists, I‘ve never heard of a lobbyist one one hundredth this sleazy. 

MATTHEWS: Are you saying that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely? 

COOK:  No question.  That‘s it.  That‘s it. 

MATTHEWS:  Howard, is that the message here? 

FINEMAN:  I‘ve been covering this drift of history for years now.  I first interviewed Jack Abramoff 20 years ago when he was the head of The College Republicans.  He was a fresh faced kid in town, full of ideological fervor, wanted to enlist in new right causes.  Saluting at Ronald Reagan at every turn.  Helping—

MATTHEWS:  Look at that now, what do you—

FINEMAN:  He‘s gone from the fresh faced kid to the suntanned lobbyist to the mobster-looking guy who looks like he‘s ready to take down a lot of people.  If I were any of those members of Congress, who were having sleepless nights, I would sleep even less having seen that picture of Jack Abramoff. 

He looks like if he would open that raincoat, he would have a half a dozen machine guns inside.  That looks pretty bad. 

MATTHEWS:  He looks like the guy in “Godfather II” going after Hyman Roth. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  The message of that is he‘s going to take no prisoners. 

That‘s the message I take from that picture.

MATTHEWS:  That he‘s going to squeal. 

FINEMAN:  He‘s going to squeal big time. 

MATTHEWS:  So when you deal with a guy who is a sleaze, he has no principles, no loyalties, you must expect the fact he‘s going to turn on you if he‘s caught.  So Michael Scanlon, his associate, apparently turned on him. 

Is he now going to turn on everybody?  If you‘re a prosecutor, you say to him, who have you ever given money to, who have you ever taken on a trip.  Let‘s go through the list of congressman.  We‘ll go down the list.  Who have you ever done anything for? 

COOK:  The thing is they‘ve got him on three counts.  Total maximum 30 years, plus all the counts that they didn‘t indict him on or weren‘t going after him on.  To get it down to nine to 11 years, they‘ve got to expect for him to do some real serious singing. 

Clearly he has given them plenty of reason to believe that he‘s going to do some singing, otherwise they would never have done this deal, they would never have knocked it down from 30 years. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean he might be out of prison with good time in five years if he sings loud enough, right? 

FINEMAN:  Possibly, that‘s what they‘re holding out to him.  Now the prosecutors did something interesting here, they only talked about indirectly one member of Congress.  But everybody assumes that there are a lot more possibilities out there, because this is the first Blackberry, poisoned Blackberry prosecution, OK? 

Everything is on the Blackberry.  Everything is on e-mail.  This guy and his associates emailed everybody around town constantly.  It was one consciousness, a matrix.  See the guy looks like a figure out of “The Matrix.”  This is one matrix of influence, OK?  In the - and all of that never disappears.  Emails, once they‘re created—

MATTHEWS:  Is this bigger than ABSCAM? 

FINEMAN:  Potentially, yes.  What they don‘t have here that they had in ABSCAM was videotapes of guys actually taking bags of cash.  They don‘t have that here, but what they‘re alleging here is an actual bribe where they‘re saying there‘s a specific quid pro quo.  That‘s tough stuff.  It‘s tough to prove. 

What Bob Bennett was explaining to me, it‘s hard to prove this but the prosecutors are going for the toughest thing to prove with a member of Congress.  That means they think, I think, that they can do it with others. 

COOK:  It comes down to two things.  Number one, does Abramoff implicate Tom DeLay, and that‘s key because without DeLay, this is a congressional scandal.  With DeLay, it becomes a Republican scandal and the second thing is what kind of numbers are we talking about.  Are we talking about two, three, four, five members or six, eight, nine, 10. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you finished or not?  You are saying DeLay might be finished after this?  Denny Hastert still trying to clean up his act giving back the money. 

I‘m suspicious of guys who give back the money after the bagman gets caught.  We‘ll be right back with Howard Fineman and Charlie Cook in a moment.  A reminder, the best political debate on line, go to hardblogger, our political blog Web site.  Now you can download podcast of HARDBALL.  Just go to our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and political analyst Charlie Cook.  The things you say when the camera is not running. 

Let me ask you about this Abramoff thing again.  In terms of the way Congress runs, people say what else is new?  And I just want to put this - ask both of you as Washington people, Capitol Hill has 435 members of The House, 100 members of the senate, thousands of staff people who get salaries, they vary from low to higher than they deserve.

Corruption.  What‘s the percentage on The Hill?  Taking money for stuff they shouldn‘t be doing.

COOK:  Tiny.  I think it‘s as absolutely tiny—it‘s there, Congress reflects society and in society people are corrupt.  But it is infinitesimal and no more than any other line of work and probably less than most.

MATTHEWS:  So you‘re taking a dinner you might not write down for once in awhile from somebody.

COOK:  But who—what corporate executive doesn‘t take a lunch from someone trying to sell his company something?  I mean, there‘s that kind of thing taking place everywhere.

FINEMAN:  Here‘s the...

MATTHEWS:  ... here‘s the sense of how corrupt the Hill is.

FINEMAN:  Well, I think it‘s like the summer weather in Washington, where the thunder clouds and the humidity build up, and it takes a week and then there‘s a tremendous thunderstorm then it clears out again.  These things tend to build up here over the years and we‘ve got another thunder cloud. 

MATTHEWS:  So Abramoff was the guy who kept testing the limits.

FINEMAN:  He kept testing the limits.  First of all, it is true that the money culture on the Hill keeps getting more pervasive.  They have to spend more and more time to raise money, to buy the TV ads.

MATTHEWS:  And the money from the lobbyists gets bigger and bigger because even though the number of Congress people stays the same, the amount of federal interest now from big corporations because of taxes and trade and regulation, there‘s more interest and more money in buying Congress.

FINEMAN:  Therefore every member is dealing in millions and millions of dollars all the time, so I think that to some extent can periodically dulls their senses and then you have a crowd that totally controls Washington.  The Democrats totally control Washington for a time, now the Republicans totally control it and the temptation is not to do the legal quid pro quos of campaign contributions because that‘s the legal part of it.  It‘s to take it the extra step and short circuit even that to take it directly to the kind of bribe that is spelled out in this indictment.

MATTHEWS:  And all these reforms that McCain passed, everybody has been passing reforms for 30 years in this town to clean up and limit the amount of influence of lobbyists.  Why hasn‘t it stopped these guys?

FINEMAN:  Well, periodically it does for a while.  It does for a while.  The air gets cleared for a while and then people find new routes and the amount of money keeps getting more through the roof and it happens all over again.  It‘s clearly happened again. 

Don‘t forget, this is the Republican Justice Department, this is the Republican integrity section of the Bush Justice Department, the lifers with some political people.  Let‘s give them credit too under Mike Chertoff and others.  He put those people in.  They‘re pursuing this.  They‘re pursuing it.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s good to hear.  Thank you, Howard.  Well-developed there.  Thank you Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” thank you Charlie Cook of the “Cook Report.”  One of the next legal steps in the Abramoff case, we‘ll have an exclusive interview with the attorney for one of those Indian tribes that gave money to Abramoff and got nothing in return.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  What does Jack Abramoff‘s guilty plea today mean for the tribes who were swindled out of millions of dollars by him.  Well, Jimmy Faircloth represents the Coushatta tribe in Louisiana.  his clients paid Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his partner, approximately #1 million in lobbying fees.  Mr. Faircloth, thank you.  What is your tribe think of the fact that it bilked out of these millions of dollars by a guy who gave them nothing?

JIMMY FAIRCLOTH, LOUISIANA COUSHATTA TRIBE ATTORNEY:  Well, they are outraged.  Whether he gave them nothing, I‘m not certain of that.  I think that was probably overstates.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s what the indictment says.  The indictment says that Mr. Abramoff never delivered services for all that money he got.

FAIRCLOTH:  But there are two aspects to what was delivered.  In one respect, Abramoff‘s firm was hired.  And then the Scanlon connection was through capital campaign strategy.  Which in—that‘s the focus of the indictment.  The indictment doesn‘t mention the $125,000 a month that was paid to Greenberg Traurig for the lobbying services.  So it‘s actually two components to what was purchased.

MATTHEWS:  Well what does your tribe think about the indictment today, of the fact that he pled today to something like nine or 10 years in prison, perhaps a lot more?

FAIRCLOTH:  Well, they‘re very satisfied with the fact that he will go to the prison but the indictment does not cover the full aspect of the fraud with regard to the money.  There is still a great deal of money that was not accounted for in the indictment, or in Scanlon‘s indictment for that matter.  Because both indictments focus on...

MATTHEWS:  $25 million, are they going to get $25 million back from this guy?  What are they going to get back, your tribe, if this works out your way?

FAIRCLOTH:  Well it‘s all position that all of the funds that were paid to Capital Campaign Strategy, that is Michael Scanlon‘s organization, were fruits of a fraud.  And so it‘s our position that all of those funds, which is approximately $31 million, should be returned to the tribe.

MATTHEWS:  And how is that going to happen?  He is exposed now to litigation by your tribe.  Is he required by this plea bargain to pay any amounts of money?

FAIRCLOTH:  No, not the plea bargain.  There will be a restitution order, I assume, when the Senate‘s hearing is conducted.  I have not seen the parameters of that, as there was in the Michael Scanlon plea agreement.  But I assume there will be a restitution order.

MATTHEWS:  What did they tell your client that they were doing with all this money that they euchred from them, from the tribe?

FAIRCLOTH:  It‘s really an amazing series of e-mails and reports where they would overstate and embellish economic gaming threats and they would overstate and embellish—it was name-dropping to the highest level.  And they would send these reports out almost weekly, announcing their successes, most of which were fabricated and they would fabricate and embellish and exaggerate competitive threats.  So it was just an enormous scam.

MATTHEWS:  So they scared your clients, they were going to hit hard by the government if they didn‘t play ball, didn‘t pay the money.  Did they say that—did Abramoff or Scanlon say they could deliver Tom DeLay?

FAIRCLOTH:  No, I don‘t recall there being a mention of Mr. DeLay being delivered.  They did direct that the tribe, along with many other tribes, make direct donations to a number of leaders, federal officials, but I don‘t think that they actually used the words, they could deliver anybody. 

MATTHEWS:  Well why did they make—what was the case they made for paying DeLay money?

FAIRCLOTH:  Along with everyone else, to establish a presence.  I think there is a term in one of the e-mails where they say to create a giving presence or a supporting presence in Washington.  And the tribe believed that Abramoff knew the secret handshake, he knew the way to get influence in Washington.  And the tribe followed him down that path.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much.  Jimmy Faircloth, thank you for coming on tonight.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan Abrams.

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