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Panel: No need to change laws after Abramoff

Existing laws are sufficient to deal with the sort of massive fraud perpetrated by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Senate panel concluded Thursday.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Existing laws are sufficient to deal with the sort of massive fraud perpetrated by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Senate panel concluded Thursday.

In a report titled, "Gimme Five," - a term that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon used in their money making scheme to rip off Tribal clients - the Senate Indian Affairs Committee today said, in a 373-page report, that the two made $66,000,000. The tribes thought they were getting expert Washington lobbying advice from the pair, but instead, according to the report, most of the money was used by Abramoff and Scanlon for purely personal reasons.

The Republican-controlled Senate Indian Affairs Committee said that with regard to Abramoff and ex-DeLay aide Michael Scanlon collecting tens of millions of dollars from Indian tribes, "without doubt, the depth and breadth of their misconduct was astonishing."

"Nevertheless, with respect solely to the kickbacks from Scanlon to Abramoff, the committee concludes that existing federal criminal statutes are sufficient to deter and punish such misconduct," it said.

The committee approved its release Thursday by a 13-0 vote.

Scanlon, a former aide to Congressman Tom Delay, pleaded guilty in November to trying to bribe public officials. Abramoff pleaded in January. Both have been cooperating with a wide-ranging Justice Department investigation of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill. That investigation snared David Safavian, a former top White House procurement officer.  A federal jury - earlier this week - found him guilty of lying and obstruction in trying to hide his relationship with Abramoff.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, told reporters after the vote that the report "speaks for itself."

But Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said the conduct described in the report is "the worst case of greed in my 20 years in the Senate."

According to the report, Abramoff seems to have used the bulk of his share of the Tribal proceeds he received from Scanlon to float his restaurant ventures and, through the Capitol Athletic Foundation, a non-profit funded in-part by a Tribal client, operate his Jewish boys' school in Maryland. CAF also paid for a now infamous August 2002 golf junket to Scotland.  Safavian also went on the Scotland trip with Abramoff.

Abramoff and Scanlon have pleaded guilty in the extensive influence peddling probe and are cooperating with the Justice Department.

Two other congressional aides turned lobbyists, Tony Rudy and Neil Volz, also have pleaded guilty and are cooperating. A federal jury convicted former White House official David Safavian on Tuesday of covering up details of his relationship with Abramoff from committee investigators and others.

An ongoing federal investigation is looking into the actions of several members of Congress and former administration officials in connection with Abramoff.

Unresolved issues?
Among those are two people who are mentioned in the report, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and former Interior Department deputy secretary Steven Griles, whose agency handled tribal casino approvals.

Ney denied to the committee that he agreed to try to insert a provision into election reform legislation in 2002 to help an American Indian tribe in Texas, the Tiguas, reopen a closed casino. Ney, in fact, told committee staff that he was unfamiliar with the tribe.

But the report notes that tribal representatives testified that Ney met with them in August 2002 and assured them he was trying to help the Tiguas in the legislation. Ney's lawyer later told the committee that his schedule for that day showed a half-hour meeting with the "Taqua." The report does not elaborate further.

Testimony so far
The star witness for the government in the Safavian case was Neil Volz, who also went along on the Scotland trip. Volz, former aide to Ney - then an associate of Abramoff's at his lobbying firm - pleaded guilty in May to entering into a conspiracy with Abramoff to corrupt public officials.  Volz testified that Ney was a "champion" to the lobby firm Greenberg/Traurig - a vital source - who could provide insider information - the kind of information the lobbyist's could not receive elsewhere.

In Volz's plea agreement, court papers say, Ney engaged in 16 actions on behalf of Abramoff at the same time the congressman and his staff were accepting gifts from the lobbyist. Ney has not been charged but is under investigation by federal prosecutors. His attorney's deny that the facts support any of the prosecution's allegations about Ney, but his attorney's said that they had a number of discussions with DOJ investigators. Ney's attorneys have said the government was "sold a bill of goods" by disgraced Abramoff.

Volz testified in the Safavian trial that after the Scotland trip he partially filled out congressional travel expense forms for Ney for the junket.  The amount paid by the congressman for the trip, Volz said, was around $3200 which included, travel on a private jet, four nights at a resort on the St Andrew's golf course, many rounds of golf, expensive meals and several day at a $500 a night hotel in London. Volz said "the number passed the smell test for defensability." Though Volz testified he though the amount that Ney agreed to claim in the expense forms was low. The chartered jet for the trip alone cost more than $90,000, according to an invoice released by the government. The total for the Scotland trip was more than $130,000.

Recent Justice Department court papers say Ney engaged in 16 actions on behalf of Abramoff at the same time the congressman and his staff were accepting gifts from the lobbyist.

Ney's office has blamed Ney's problems on "the lies and deception of Jack Abramoff."

Ney "has never, at any point, engaged in any improper, unethical or illegal activity," his office said Tuesday, after the Safavian verdict.

Griles has denied giving Abramoff or his clients preferential treatment. The committee was "unable to arrive at any definitive conclusions as to the veracity of Griles' testimony," the report said.

Recommendations for Indian Tribes
The committee did recommend that Indian tribes adopt their own laws "to help prevent a similar tragedy." The tribes hired Abramoff and Scanlon to deal with casino gambling issues. The Senate report said tribal contracting should adopt the principles of openness and competition.

The report said that in some cases, Abramoff and Scanlon obtained lobbying and grassroots contracts "by insinuating themselves into tribal council elections and assisting with the campaigns of candidates who were calculated to support their proposals."

The report concluded that in other cases, Abramoff and Scanlon "were even more aggressive, for example, helping to shut down the casino of one tribe, only to pitch their services for millions of dollars to help that same, now desperate Tribe reopen its casino."

Abramoff probe
In all, so far five people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of influence peddling: Volz, Abramoff, and two former aides to Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay - Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon.  Safavian has been the only person caught up in the Abramoff scandal to be convicted at trial.  The Justice Department's investigation is continuing.