The guilty plea to conspiracy charges Friday by a former top staffer to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, further exposes the degree of influence that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had on Capitol Hill -- even when his clients were halfway across the Pacific.
Tony Rudy, who worked for DeLay as press secretary and then deputy chief of staff from 1995 to 2000, entered the plea in United States District Court here Friday. Court papers show that while working in DeLay's office, Rudy provided Abramoff with assistance in stopping legislation opposed by one of the lobbyist's clients.
In exchange, Rudy was lavished with free trips, sporting tickets, meals and golf games and $86,000 to a consulting firm he set up and was run by his wife - all courtesy of Abramoff. Rudy, 39, joined Abramoff's lobbying firm after working for DeLay.
There were no allegations against DeLay in the documents released Friday as part of Rudy's plea agreement.
But the documents do reveal the extent of Abramoff's influence on Capitol Hill. One case in point: The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI). The CNMI was a very lucrative Abramoff client. In order to help his client, Abramoff had to make an investment of his own - secure the help of Rudy, an influential Hill staffer.
The volcanic islands are located just north of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. The Marianas may be far away but they have a unique manufacturing advantage - they are exempt from U.S. tariffs as well as minimum wage and immigration standards. The Marianas are known for their low-paying garment factories. The exemption allows garment makers there to put "Made in the U.S." labels on their clothing. Human rights groups argue this has fostered an exploitive working environment in the commonwealth's booming garment industry.
According to an internal audit of its lobbying contracts, The Marianas government paid Abramoff a total of $7.17 million in lobbying fees from 1996 to 2001. Auditors questioned Abramoff's lobbying expenses. They said they were "excessive." But Abramoff wanted to make sure garment factories in the Marianas didn't lose their exemptions so he took care of Capitol Hill insiders like Rudy.
Just days before Abramoff himself was sentenced in an unrelated Florida fraud case this week, the current governor of the Marianas Islands wrote to the Miami judge, pleading for leniency. Abramoff, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial wrote, was a "personal friend and political champion" of the "beleaguered" Pacific islands.
Using official government stationery, the governor wrote of Abramoff, "he was a natural crusader and political activist, with great sympathy for our un-represented Commonwealth." Fitial was a former executive of a clothing company.
But court papers filed Friday reveal that Rudy was deeply involved with Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon in the Marianas lobbying effort.
- In January 2000, Rudy agreed to arrange for another staff member to travel to CNMI with Scanlon and others in part to assist Abramoff.
- In 2000, Rudy worked with others to secure certain appropriations projects for CNMI, which he knew would help Abramoff's lobbying business.
And, court papers reveal that Rudy provided things of value to a Member of Congress ("Representative #1") and members of his staff, "to use their official positions and influence to assist Abramoff." It is widely believed that the reference to "Representative #1" refers to Bob Ney, R-Ohio. One of the "things of value" provided to Ney and cited in the filing: partial payment of a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland.
Court papers cite Representative #1's agreement in March 2001 to support legislation that would enable Abramoff's clients to continue to manufacture clothing with "Made in the U.S." without being subject to the same wage and labor standards as companies operating in the continental United States.
Rudy also asked lawmakers to vote against an Internet-gambling bill, which, according to the plea papers, "Representative #1" helped out Abramoff's Indian tribal clients. The congressman as co-chairman of a Conference Committee of House and Senate Members of Congress agreed to introduce and pass legislation that would lift an existing federal ban against commercial gaming in order to benefit Abramoff's tribal client in Texas.
A statement released Friday by Ney's communications director, Brian Walsh, said Abramoff lied to Ney. "They lied to their clients, they lied to their colleagues and they lied to Members of Congress."
Walsh also wrote that the Scotland golf trip was never solicited by Ney. "Congressman Ney in fact never solicited the trip to Scotland. He remains absolutely confident that when the full facts of Abramoff's schemes are revealed, fiction will continue to be separated from fact and it will be made clear that he did absolutely nothing wrong."
Meanwhile, Rudy has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in their ongoing investigation of congressional influence peddling schemes orchestrated by Abramoff.