The Justice Department's wide-ranging investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has entered a highly active phase as prosecutors are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies, lawyers involved in the case said.
Prosecutors have already told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least half a dozen members of Congress, lawyers and others close to the probe said. The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, lawyers and others familiar with the probe said.
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R), now facing separate campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, is one of the members under scrutiny, the sources said. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and other members of Congress involved with Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest, are also said to be among them.
Prosecutions and plea deals have become more likely, the lawyers said, now that Abramoff's former partner -- public relations executive Michael Scanlon -- has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and to testify about gifts that he and his K Street colleagues showered on lawmakers, allegedly in exchange for official favors.
An attorney for DeLay, whose wife worked for a lobbying firm that received client referrals from Abramoff, said there was no connection between her work and congressional business. A spokesman for Doolittle, whose wife received payments from Abramoff's lobbying firm, also said there was no connection with her husband's position. Burns's office has said his actions were consistent with his support for improving conditions for Indian tribes.
Target of the inquiry?
Ney is the congressman whose name has surfaced most prominently in the Abramoff investigation. His spokesman and attorney have said for weeks that Ney has not been told he is a target of the inquiry, even while acknowledging that his office has received a grand jury subpoena and that his activities were mentioned in Scanlon's plea agreement.
But the sources said that during the third week of October prosecutors told Ney and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, that they were preparing a bribery case based in part on activities that occurred in October 2000. Abramoff and another business partner, Adam Kidan, were also told that they are targets in that case, the sources said.
The five-year statute of limitations for filing charges based on those events expired last month; the prosecutors sought and received a waiver of the deadline from all four men while they continue their investigation, the sources said. Prosecutors are often able to obtain such waivers by giving the targets a choice of being indicted right away or granting more time to see if information might surface that exonerates them.
Ney's attorney, Mark H. Tuohey, did not return calls seeking comment on the waiver. Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the office had no comment, as did a lawyer for Volz.
The attorneys of Abramoff and Kidan did not return calls seeking comment.
The events in 2000 that interest investigators are connected to the purchase by Abramoff and Kidan of SunCruz Casinos, owner of a fleet of Florida gambling boats. Ney twice placed comments in the Congressional Record about SunCruz, first criticizing its former owner when Abramoff and Kidan were in difficult purchase negotiations and then, in October, praising Kidan's new management. Abramoff and Kidan are facing trial in January on charges of defrauding lenders in their purchase of the casino boats.
The statute of limitations may also soon run out on a 2001 Super Bowl trip sponsored by SunCruz that sources said investigators have reviewed. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that aides to Burns and DeLay were ferried to Tampa on a SunCruz corporate jet arranged by Abramoff. Ney and his sons were invited to the 2001 Super Bowl outing, former Abramoff associates said, but did not go.
The Hill aides were treated to the game and a night of gambling on a Sun Cruz ship. They were offered $500 in gambling chips, sources knowledgeable about the trip said.
The Post has reported that Burns, who received $137,000 in contributions from Abramoff lobbyists and their tribal clients, obtained a controversial $3 million school construction grant for one of Abramoff's wealthy tribal clients after pressuring the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Hiring congressional wives
Investigators are also gathering information about Abramoff's hiring of several congressional wives, sources said, as well as his referral of clients to Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying and consulting firm run by former senior aides to DeLay. Financial disclosure forms show that the firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002.
Former Abramoff lobbying associates have said that Abramoff shared some of his high-paying clients with the group, including Malaysian interests, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe and online gambling firms. Federal investigators have questioned some former Abramoff associates about whether those referrals were related to Christine DeLay's employment there, sources said.
Alexander Strategy Group is run by former DeLay senior staffers Edwin A. Buckham and Tony C. Rudy. Rudy served as DeLay's deputy chief of staff until 2001, when he took a job with Abramoff, and later moved on to join Buckham.
Investigators are looking into whether Rudy aided Abramoff's lobbying clients while he was working on the Hill, the sources said, and are reviewing payments from Abramoff clients and associates to Liberty Consulting, a political firm founded by Rudy's wife, Lisa. The Washington Post reported last month that Rudy, while on DeLay's staff, helped scuttle a bill opposed by eLottery Inc., an Abramoff client, and that Abramoff had eLottery pay a foundation to hire Liberty Consulting.
Richard Cullen, an attorney for the DeLays, said Christine DeLay was hired by Buckham, an old family friend, to determine the favorite charity of every member of Congress. She was paid $3,200 to $3,400 a month for three years, or about $115,000 total, he said.
"It wasn't like she did this 9 to 5, but it was an ongoing project," Cullen said. He said Christine DeLay's work was commensurate with the project and had nothing to do with her husband or any official congressional business. "This was something that she found to be very interesting, very challenging and very worthwhile," Cullen said.
Rudy and Buckham and their attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.
Connections to Doolittle
Abramoff's connections to Doolittle are also of interest to investigators, sources said. Doolittle's former chief of staff, Kevin A. Ring, went to work with Abramoff. Doolittle's wife, Julie, owned a consulting firm that was hired by Abramoff and his firm, Greenberg Traurig, to do fundraising for a charity he founded. Two sources close to the investigation said that Ring, while working for Abramoff, was an intermediary in the hiring of Julie Doolittle's firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc., which last year received a subpoena from the grand jury investigating Abramoff.
Julie Doolittle's attorney, William L. Stauffer Jr., said Sierra Dominion Financial was hired by Greenberg Traurig to provide "event planning, marketing and related services, as requested by Mr. Abramoff" for Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation and his Signatures restaurant. Sierra Dominion received a monthly retainer from Greenberg Traurig from January 2003 until February 2004, at a rate similar to that paid by other Sierra Dominion clients, Stauffer said.
Abramoff frequently used the athletic foundation as a pass-through organization to run lobbying efforts and to pay for expenses, records show. Julie Doolittle was hired to put on a fundraiser for the foundation at the International Spy Museum, but the event was canceled because it had been scheduled to take place just at the Iraq war was commencing, Stauffer said.
"Sierra Dominion primarily performed public relations and other event planning services for the Spy Museum event," Stauffer said in an e-mail reply to questions. "This included responding to all individuals calling the Capital Athletic Foundation concerning the Spy Museum event, identifying (and contacting) possible attendees for the event, and assisting in fund raising strategy and letters."
Doolittle's office denied any connection between the firm's work and official acts.
"In no way did Sierra Dominion's business services work for Greenberg Traurig have any relationship to Congressman Doolittle's official duties as a member of the House of Representatives," said Doolittle spokeswoman Laura Blackmann.
"Congressman Doolittle has never received a subpoena regarding this matter, nor has he ever been contacted by the Justice Department to provide information or be questioned," she said.
The Justice Department investigation is also looking into Abramoff's influence among executive branch officials. Sources said prosecutors are continuing to seek information about Abramoff's dealings with then-Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, including a job offer from the lobbyist at a time when he was seeking department actions on behalf of his tribal clients.
The former top procurement official in the Bush administration, David H. Safavian, has already been charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation. Safavian, who traveled to Scotland with Ney on a golf outing arranged by Abramoff, is accused of concealing from federal investigators that Abramoff was seeking to do business with the General Services Administration at the time of the golf trip. Safavian was then GSA chief of staff.