What began as a scandal involving a prominent lobbyist and Indian tribes has now mushroomed into something that could threaten political careers.
For a decade, Jack Abramoff was one of Washington's super-lobbyists with powerful friends like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Now Abramoff is under congressional and criminal investigation, telling a U.S. Senate hearing at one point, “I have no choice but to assert my various constitutional privileges against having to testify.”
The case involves $82 million in lobbying and public relations fees paid to Abramoff and an associate over three years by Indian tribes involved in casino gambling.
"This man promised the world to us, and it was just a big lie, a big lie," says Carlos Hisa, lieutenant governor of the Tigua Tribe.
Abramoff defends actions
Leaders of the Tigua tribe in Texas say they paid $4.2 million after Abramoff promised to help reopen a casino. They say they were later shocked to learn that Abramoff had been working with another tribe to shut down the Tigua casino.
In an exclusive interview with NBC, Abramoff insists that all the tribes were represented fairly and got their money's worth.
“The benefit that we brought to these tribes was far in excess, by multiples of tens and hundreds, of the charges — of the costs of these efforts," says Abramoff.
Abramoff used money from Indian tribes and other clients to entertain and influence members of Congress. And, government sources say, he kept meticulous notes, now in the hands of the FBI, of tickets and golf trips paid for and favors sought.
Tom DeLay is already in hot water. He traveled with Abramoff to Russia in 1997 and to Britain in 2000, playing golf in Scotland at legendary St. Andrews. The total cost of two trips was $127,000.
DeLay says actions proper
Though Delay reported that the National Center for Public Policy Research footed the bills, the conservative group says it paid for the trip but got some contributions from Abramoff's clients.
That matters because ethics rules allow groups like the Center to pay for congressional travel, but not lobbyists.
Still, DeLay insists the trips were "proper" and says he didn’t know, and can't be responsible for knowing, how a trip sponsor "ultimately obtains funding."
Other congressman claim they were misled about who paid for their golf trips. All this makes many lobbyists and politicians uncomfortable.
Abramoff says he's singled out
"They look at what Abramoff did as routine behavior taken to excessive levels,” says political analyst Charles Cook.
Abramoff says he’s being singled out for actions that are commonplace.
"It's been devastating on every level for me,” says Abramoff, “on a financial level, on a social level, on a personal level, on a political level."
Now, a popular Washington parlor game is guessing whether Abramoff will try to save himself by fingering friends.