With a House Republican committee chairman implicated in the criminal case and the highest echelons of the Republican Party increasingly vulnerable to charges, GOP leaders moved yesterday to distance themselves from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and prepare to combat a growing corruption scandal.
Hours after Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion charges, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced that he will donate to charity the tens of thousands of dollars that he has received from Abramoff's Indian tribe clients. Top Republican strategists pushed GOP leaders to embrace legislation to curb the influence of lobbyists.
And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called on House Republicans to elect a new majority leader to permanently replace Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Abramoff's most powerful ally in Washington, who faces a trial on unrelated criminal charges of violating Texas campaign laws.
"Unequivocally, the House Republicans need to select a new majority leader in late January or early February," said Gingrich, who cited revelations in The Washington Post that a public advocacy group organized by DeLay associates had been largely financed by Russian energy interests.
The plea agreement signed by Abramoff yesterday implicates only one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), but it indicates that future revelations would ensnare other public officials. The agreement refers broadly to trips, campaign contributions and entertainment offered up to public officials "in exchange for agreements that the public officials would use their official positions and influence" for Abramoff's benefit. That suggests there were specific quid pro quos that could yield additional charges of bribery and public corruption.
Ney, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the operations of the House, is never referenced by name, although Ney's spokesman confirmed that Ney is the "Representative #1" repeatedly mentioned in court documents outlining Abramoff's wrongdoing. The court documents depict "Representative #1" as accepting lavish gifts of travel, meals, entertainment and campaign contributions, then awarding congressional contracts to Abramoff's clients, inserting a statement of support in the Congressional Record, and even obtaining a travel visa for a relative of one of Abramoff's clients while in Russia on official business.
Ney spokesman Brian Walsh denied the charges, saying any official actions Ney had taken were based on "the merits and facts of the situation and not because of any improper influence from Jack Abramoff or anybody else."
"At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," Ney said in a statement.
Republican strategists expressed some relief that the damage could be limited. Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that if Abramoff's revelations ensnare only one lawmaker and some unknown staff members, Democrats will have little chance of sparking a political revolt when voters go to the polls in November to elect a new Congress.
But now that Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, he could provide testimony highly damaging to other high-level lawmakers. DeLay is not mentioned, but court documents do single out his former deputy chief of staff, Tony C. Rudy. The documents detail 10 monthly payments totaling $50,000 that went to the wife of an aide identified as "Staffer A." In exchange, that aide, identified elsewhere as Rudy, helped torpedo Internet gambling legislation and a postal-rate increase, according to Abramoff's plea agreement.
Moreover, numerous references to Abramoff-financed trips to Scotland and the Northern Mariana Islands raised anew questions about DeLay's own trips to both locations with Abramoff.
Dick DeGuerin, an attorney for DeLay, said he is not concerned about the Abramoff investigation. DeLay has offered to cooperate with the Justice Department probe and has not been called in, he said.
"If Jack Abramoff tells the truth, what he'll do is clear the air, and everyone will see there's no connection between Jack Abramoff's money-dealing and Tom DeLay," DeGuerin said.
Yesterday, Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who has been overseeing the probe into illegal corporate donations there, tried to find that connection by sending subpoenas to Abramoff's two former employers in Washington, seeking documents and any correspondence involving DeLay and certain contributions by Abramoff clients.
The subpoenas are based on evidence that the law firm Preston Gates Ellis LLP and several Abramoff clients, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, made donations to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee organized by DeLay and his associates. That committee has been indicted on charges of illegally using corporate funds, and Earle now appears to be seeking information on what the donors expected to get in return for their payments.
DeLay's 'best friend'
Even before the plea agreement was unveiled, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had circulated a 1997 quote from DeLay hailing Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends."
"Tom DeLay was majority leader of the House of Representatives," said DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), "and Tom DeLay said Jack Abramoff was his best friend, nobody else."
But Democrats could be ensnared by the Abramoff case, as well. The lobbyist oversaw at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP a team of two dozen lobbyists that included many Democrats. The biggest beneficiaries of campaign contributions directed by the Abramoff team included such high-ranking Democrats as then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.), a former head of the House Democrats' campaign committee.
Some key Republican strategists have complained that GOP leaders have been slow in responding to a scandal that has been unfolding for months and in holding internal elections to permanently replace DeLay in the House leadership.
With Abramoff's plea, that may change. In November, The Post detailed a fundraiser held by Hastert at one of Abramoff's restaurants that netted from the lobbyist's law firm and tribal clients at least $21,500 for the speaker's political action committee. Since then, numerous lawmakers from both parties have returned such donations, but only yesterday did Hastert join the line.
"While these contributions were legal, he believes that it is appropriate to donate the money to charity," said Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman.
Staff writers Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.